Saturday, April 7, 2012

It is Finished

Every year around Paschal time, I always have a nice "plan" to not only separate myself from things like TV and movies but also to return to my collection of some of the greatest music ever written for this greatest of weeks. In particular, I try to make it a point to listen to J.S. Bach's great Passion according to St. John and the Passion according to St. Matthew. If either or both of these works were actually his faith written down musically, then what a faith he had!

I finally had the chance to listen to the St. John Passion in its entirety, something I've never really done before. Though there are so many great selections from this work, the one that forced me to stop the recording and play it again was No. 58, the aria for Alto "Es ist vollbracht!" (It is finished). The aria starts off beautifully with a soaring solo for the violoncello with the organ basso continuo. It is so profoundly depressing!

But, the mood suddenly changes to one of joy and triumph. For the words "it is finished" do not solely refer to Christ's completing his earthly life as man, but at the same time finishing death's hold on us as God. Es ist vollbracht!

I don't want to get into the debates about which of Bach's Passions is better. Many people simply prefer the St. Matthew passion because the Christ is more human. That may be the case, but I think then that the St. John Passion excels so much more theologically because the Man and the Divine, incarnate singly into one Person, the Theanthropos is on display.

J.S. Bach was a superb creator of melody and his word painting has few equals. And not only was he a superb musician but also a man who knew his Scriptures very well. I think that his church music would have been poorer had he not been as astute a reader of Scripture as he was the compositions of others. Check out the recording below.

The translated text is:
It is finished.
O rest for stricken spirits;
This dreary night
lets me count to the final hour.
Our Hero battles on with might
and ends the fight.
It is finished.


  1. The Passion according to St Matthew by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) is Orthodox version using liturgical texts of Holy Week. Excerpts on youtube or complete at

    1. Yes, I've heard it. And I'm sure His Eminence would be the first to admit that he is nowhere in the same category of J.S. Bach, whom he reportedly admires as his favorite "western" composer.

      I don't know why you brought this up. I'm not trying to argue for the "orthodoxy" one way or the other of J.S. Bach's work though I do not see how 85% of the text being from the Bible is unorthodox in any way. I'm not advocating for its use liturgically in Orthodox parishes (though I wonder why the Lutherans stopped using it since it was their tradition that brought it to its finest development). Again, I just think it is a fine work and one which really causes me to reflect even more on the events of that Great Friday.

  2. Just sharing if you didn't know. I like Met. Hilarion's St Matthew Passion better than Bach's, especially with English subtitles of the Orthodox liturgical texts. Sublime! But, it's for concert, and not liturgical use.

    1. It's not a bad piece of work, but, musically, it just can't compete with Bach, regardless of the source of the texts.