Holy Week Retreat

CD Cover for Saint Matthew's Passion
J. S. Bach, Saint Matthew’s Passion

The Passion of Jesus of Nazareth

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, I participated in the liturgy at my local church. The Passion from Saint Luke was read in the usual fashion, two readers taking the parts of the narrator and other characters, with the priest taking the part of Jesus. It left me unmoved. Maybe it was the setting that undermined my emotional involvement: a large church with only a scattering of people in the congregation, a priest for whom English was not his first language and readers that were poorly prepared. I listened more out of duty than from any heightened sense of the drama being played out.

Later this week I hope to find time to read quietly the full story of the Passion in Saint John’s Gospel. It has been a tradition for me for many years, one that I continue to treasure and find helpful. I will also participate in the liturgical ceremonies. And, maybe, like last year I will take part in the public Carrying of the Cross through the streets of Dublin, from Christ Church Cathedral to the Catholic Pro-Cathedral. It is an ecumenical event that engages participants in an act of public witness that has its own intrinsic emotional appeal. It concludes with a Taizé night prayer which never fails to bring the mind and heart to a still place.

However, for me engagement with Holy Week is not complete without some time spent with two very special pieces of music, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and J. Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. Both pieces reach out to the soul and the emotions and confront them with the human reality of the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth. There is nothing cerebral or perfunctory in the treatment of what took place in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago.

From time to time public events such as the assassination of an unarmed Garda in Dundalk some weeks ago, the tragic death of a young person in an act of despair, or the plight of children dying on the Syrian camps, punch through our emotional firewalls to bring us to tears and a churning of the heart. Truly, gut-wrenching experiences.

Time spent with Pergolesi and Bach has a similar effect.

Before their finely-pitched aesthetic voicing of intense sorrow, grief and outrage, we are wholly defenceless. We are invited to enter into solidarity with the suffering of Jesus, and through this experience, with the suffering of the world.

In recent years BBC Radio 4 has broadcast an occasional series called Soul Music (available as a podcast) in which people are invited to offer a reflection on how a particular piece of music has had an impact on their lives. The links below provide access to a recording of the Stabat Mater and Saint Matthew Passion episodes from this BBC Radio 4 series.

Perhaps, listening to these very moving stories and reflections may offer you some resources for your private retreat this Holy Week.

J.S.Bach, Saint Matthew’s Passion

Pergolesi, Stabat Mater


3 thoughts on “Holy Week Retreat

  1. Greetings Donal! Just to say thank you for this email and its contents. I too try to set aside time in this most sacred of weeks. It’s helpful to get pointers towards what may serve as an entry into the depths of the mystery revealed.
    I guess you are familiar with Gorecki’s Symphony touches a deep place! Blessings for Holy Week and for Easter. Anne

  2. Thanks Donal for leading me on such a spiritual and reflective journey. I am reserving the Stabat Mater for Good Friday. Just listened to all of Vivaldi’s Gloria this evening prior to setting off to An Croi Nua in Turners Cross

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