No matter how hard many Europeans try to shake off a Christian past, media coverage this Easter has again reminded us how indelibly imprinted the story of Jesus remains in European culture and consciousness.
Television and newspapers across this increasingly secularised continent carried story after story of concerts and performances retelling the core message of the Christian faith–the unlikely and unexpected resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from a criminal’s death.
A combined Catholic-evangelical television production of The Passion not only drew 20,000 out into snow falling on the streets in The Hague, but also attracted two million Dutch television viewers to the two-hour pop presentation on Thursday evening. Starring well-known singers, artists and political figures as Jesus, the disciples and other key players, The Passion was aimed specifically at the non-churched, appealing to a popular felt-need for rituals. A large cross, lit from inside with led-lamps, was carried in procession from the Palace of Justice towards the Binnenhof, Holland’s parliament buildings. A podium built out over the large pond in front of the prime minister’s office became the scene of the trial, death and reappearance of Jesus, standing on the water singing his finale.
Not everybody’s cuppa tea, but secular front-page and prime-time coverage was both extensive and surprisingly positive. In terms of stimulating millions of Dutch to think and talk about the Easter story, the production was a great success.
For more high-brow audiences, countless performances of St Matthew’s Passion, St John’s Passion and The Messiah were presented, broadcast and reported on across Holland, Europe and of course around the world.
Much air time on the BBC this Easter has been devoted to that ever-green evangelist of the gospel story, Johan Sebastian Bach. Believers, doubters and non-believers are united in their conviction that Bach’s work represents ‘one of the touchstones of civilisation’–to quote John Eliot Gardiner, self-described as ‘not a card-carrying Christian’. The celebrated conductor chose Easter Monday to present his Bach Marathon, nine hours of continuous Bach, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, to mark his upcoming 70th birthday.
In a BBC special on Bach over the weekend, Gardiner explored the life and career, joys and pains, triumphs and failures of the great composer whose habit was invariably to dedicate his work to the glory of God. Interviewed in this special, Philip Pullman, the best-selling author of the anti-Christian children’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials, described Bach’s composition of voice and counter-voice, and layer upon layer of meaning and symbol, as being so superlative as to make one almost believe in God, ‘if one was so inclined’.
Gardiner explained that much of Bach’s working life was devoted to forging a unique synthesis between his music and the word of God. Bach helped his listeners to understand what choices they have: showing them heaven and then focusing on the real world and how to deal with it in terms of attitude and conduct. No one knew better how to deal with personal loss or to cushion the assaults of grief, said Gardiner.
While post-modern audiences can enjoy pop processions of The Passion and Bach oratorios simply as artistic parables without factual basis, millions are nevertheless being exposed to a story they might otherwise not encounter. As long as Bach is remembered and performed, his work will go on proclaiming the gospel SDG: Soli Deo Gloria.
Meanwhile, back in Rome, there was a new pope about to conduct his first Easter Mass as pontifex. The world’s media were eager to carry Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi address, telling the world that Christ was risen, and calling for peace in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and beyond, to the earth’s far corners.
Britain’s conservative weekly, The Spectator, this week runs an editorial about how ‘the Resurrection has inspired our greatest artists, thinkers and musicians. It’s been the foundation stone of the great buildings of Christian civilisation. Bach expressed the moment in his B–minor Mass, when the desolation of the ‘Crucifixus’ give way to the ecstatic outbursts of the ‘Et Resurrexit’. This triumph of life over death has been the subject of almost every major artist from the earliest icon-workers through Piero della Francesca and Titian to Stanley Spencer.’
The editorial concludes: ‘As certainties that have guided our country and our continent for years begin to shake, and as the distractions of our age forever tempt us towards the shallow and the ephemeral, Easter is an opportunity to think once more of greater, older and deeper things. Beginning with an empty tomb and a stone rolled back.’
Not bad for secular media.
Till next week,
Till next week,