Friday, March 21, 2008

Karfreitag: Friday of Lamentations

It is customary in English to call the Friday preceding Easter Sunday 'Good Friday'. As a second-language user, or more specifically, as someone whose mother-tongue is German, that always struck me as odd, for in German, the old word 'Karfreitag' is still in use, and that means the very opposite: this is the Friday of lamentations (in old high German, kara = lamentation, mourning, etc.).

Curiously, it was the German reformer, Martin Luther, who popularised the idea of 'Good Friday': he called the day 'Guter Freitag' because he wanted to stress a theological 'retro-perspective' from Easter Sunday - hardly surprising, given Luther's general theological perspective. That is all fine by me - I was brought up in the tradition of the Reformation, after all.

But... picking up from the last post, it seems to me that we have lost a lot by calling Karfreitag Good Friday: that is something that is much more dangerous in English than it is in German, where at least the old word has been kept. The whole point of the ritual (liturgical) re-enactment of this day in churches today is to remember the passion of Christ: that is, the suffering of Christ. To speak too easily and too quickly of how this is, ultimately, the one thing that saves us from ultimate disaster, is shortsighted. Once again: we cannot understand Easter Sunday unless we experience the Friday of Lamentation.

Today is Karfreitag: a day of lamentation. Jesus was betrayed by one of his followers; denied by the rest; tortured, abused, and brutally executed by the Roman occupation force (and what they thought of it we can see in the sign they placed on his cross, the instrument of execution, and the description of the two other poor souls who were killed next to him that day; Mark 15: 25-27). Today is a day of lamentation.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Arrest

I think it was about 12 or 18 months ago or so that I watched the film, "Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage" (The Final Days).

The plot, of course, was hardly news to me. In fact, not long before I had been to the university building in Munich where the opening scene was shot, and where in fact that arrest took place in 1943. Yet as I watched the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film, the build-up to the arrest of Hans and Sophie Scholl, I felt a growing sense of panic. I felt like dragging them away from the moment where they decide to go back into the hallway to make sure that absolutely all of their leaflets are distributed. They had already distributed so much of it - this was a further risk just not worth taking, and it cost them their lives.

I felt almost the same visceral response to the arrest scene in a powerful performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion on Monday night at King's College, Cambridge. (Never mind the privileged environment; that's another story.) Both the gospel writer - on re-reading the passion narrative - and Bach really understood the reality of arrest and what it meant; and Bach - on top of that - creates an extraordinary scence with that desparate panic in the 'participant observer/audience'. The Evangelist's lines are thoughtfully laid out, and then there is that Chorus, twice: "Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!" (Leave him, stop, don't bind him!")

In the Protestant tradition, it has of late become quite commonplace to ignore the liturgical-theological movement of the ecclesiastical year. (Clearly that was not the case for Bach!) That this is a serious loss is nowhere more apparent than during Holy Week and Easter: to understand Easter, one has to go through Holy Week, every year, with a feeling of dread, panic and fear.

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