In writing about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I identified it as a devotional exercise. It seemed to me to be an extended visual meditation on the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. Others have identified it as a meditation on the Stations of the Cross. In any case, the movie translated a classic Christian devotion into a shockingly modern form.

The church has preached the Cross from its apostolic beginnings at Pentecost, but it seems that once people heeded the message of the Cross and became followers of Jesus, they felt a need to structure personal and communal ways to remember that pivotal event in salvation history.

The most ancient description of a ritualized remembering of the Passion is a fourth-century eyewitness report by a Spanish nun named Egeria. She traveled to the Holy Land and reported that Christians in Jerusalem gathered for three hours on Good Friday to listen to the bishop read from the Scriptures the prophecies of the Lord's Passion and their fulfillment.

Christians have developed other forms of commemoration (literally, "remembering together"), such as walking the Way of Sorrows (via dolorosa) either literally in Jerusalem or symbolically by praying and meditating before a series of plaques that recount the events of Jesus' painful trek to Calvary.

This Holy Week, I am going to participate in another variation on such communal remembering: a service of meditations on the Seven Last Words. This service was first developed by Jesuit missionaries in Peru, who blended cross-centered preaching with guided meditation to create a kind of congregational "spiritual exercise." In Jesuit terms, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says, Spiritual Exercises refers to a 4-week program of meditations designed by Ignatius Loyola to combine "sense impressions, imagination, and understanding, in actuating the will towards the pursuit of perfection." Ignatius devoted fully one-quarter of the meditations (the third week) to the Passion, and these meditations shaped the spiritual lives of his followers. In the century after Loyola created the Spiritual Exercises, these Jesuit missionaries created a three-hour meditation on Jesus' seven sayings from the Cross for use on Good Friday.

This service eventually became an occasion for dramatic music as well as meditation. In 1785 or '86, the Austrian Catholic composer Franz Joseph Haydn received a request from Spain to write a series of seven orchestral interludes to accompany the spoken parts of the service. Though Haydn wrote with classical restraint just after the close of the Baroque era, the spirit of the Spanish Baroque is at work in this project. (To gain a visual impression of how the Spanish imagination had dealt with the Passion, consider the Pieta by El Greco, Ignatius's younger contemporary, or Christ on the Cross by Velasquez, who lived at the same time the Jesuits shaped their meditations on the Seven Last Words.)

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Here is how Haydn himself described the service for which he composed his Seven Last Words:

Some fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on the seven last words of Our Savior on the Cross. It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center of the roof broke the solemn darkness.
At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse.
My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners.

Haydn's music—an introduction, seven musical meditations on the words, and a final "earthquake" movement—not only succeeded in not "fatiguing the listeners," but its popularity and power has lasted more than 200 years, from its first performance in 1787 till now. Haydn also created a version for string quartet so that the music could be played where the full forces of an orchestra were not available. And in 1795-96, he wrote a choral version, which was published in 1801.

In one of history's curious twists, Good Friday services that focus on the Seven Last Words have become more popular among Protestants than among Catholics. Perhaps this is because the service lends itself to preaching, and Protestants, we all know, love to preach. The service also lends itself to multiple preachers, which is why it is often sponsored as an ecumenical service by local ministerial fellowships.

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The event in which I will be participating this year, uses Haydn's string quartet version, and its nature is ambiguous. Is this a concert? Or is this a service? The promotional materials call it a "concert," a "performance," and a "presentation," but in order to be true to the work's original intent, eight religious leaders (including yours truly) will be offering brief meditations. (I am speaking on "I Thirst." In two previous events, CT's associate news editor Stan Guthrie spoke on the same saying from the cross.)

The ambiguity is heightened by the choice of venue: the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. A grand Gothic-revival structure, the broad strokes of the Rockefeller Chapel's architecture evoke medieval cathedrals with their soaring tribute to God's transcendence. But whereas Gothic cathedrals were filled with Christian symbolism: crosses, angels, saints, pelicans, and such, the details of Rockefeller Chapel reflect the liberal Protestant spirit of its times, and its few Christian symbols are discreetly placed so as not to offend anyone.

The musicians for this occasion are the Vermeer Quartet, and I know from conversations with violist Richard Young that they take very seriously the religious character of Haydn's music and its performance. Since 1988, their annual presentations have tried to recreate something of the original experience.

Not everyone can get to the Vermeer Quartet's concerts at the University of Chicago and Northern Illinois University where they blend music and spoken meditation. So in 1994 they produced a two-CD set—one CD that is music only, and one CD that features both music and spoken word. The CD features such high-profile preachers as Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., renowned scholars such as Raymond Brown and Martin Marty, and the voice of Jason Robards.

Whether you participate in person or by listening to a recording, the music of Haydn is a powerful instrument to help focus meditation on the Lord's Passion.

Related Elsewhere:

Additional helpful background on Franz Joseph Haydn's The Seven Last Words can be read in the liner notes of the Vermeer Quartet's two-CD recording and Eugene Drucker's notes for the Emerson Quartet's recording on the Deutsche Grammaphon website.

Click here for information about the Wednesday, April 7, performance by the Vermeer Quartet at Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel. The concert will be broadcast on Good Friday, April 9, at 8 p.m. Central Time by fine arts radio station WFMT.

Also posted today is a meditation on "I thirst," two of Christ's last words.