Last evening I was sitting in Manhattan's Church of St. Paul the Apostle, near Central Park on 59th Street. The magnificent and cavernous church was packed (sold out I am told), so that extra chairs were needed. More than a thousand were there to listen, an audience of clergy of both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, Copts, Protestants, nuns, and predominantly laymen and laywomen. The concert started nearly on time, with the orchestra alone, joined by choir (this is a clip of the opening in its Russian version): "Come, let us sing a holy lament to Christ. Alleluia." The Passion narrative of the Gospel of St. Matthew is chanted, interspersed by texts from the Holy Week services of the Orthodox Church, sung by chorus and soloists, and fugues. To say that the concert "blew me away" would be right. It carried me into divine and heart-rending precincts beyond the city on a winter's evening.
Here is a write up on the event from St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, a sponsor, along with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, of the performance of St. Matthew's Passion by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, whom I had the privilege of meeting at a reception before the concert. Hilarion is chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations.
Lent is now a month away for both Eastern and Western Christians. This concert was a foretaste, for me, not of Lent itself, but of what a faithful observance of Lent can prepare me for: a spiritual observance of Holy Week, which is to walk as closely as possible in the steps of Jesus from his ascent from the Upper Room to trial to Calvary and beyond.
St. Paul came to the Corinthians, determined to know nothing other than Christ and him crucified. It is strong medicine, needed not only for the Corinthians but also for American Christian church at large which knows of the Passion and approves of it theologically but does not know the Passion in its own internal experience. The Cross is so little understood that its removal from a place of worship can at times be seen as an advancement in proclaiming Christ to the world, or not even noticed. Taken as whole, with due respect to those among us who have truly suffered in various ways, we in the West are Corinthians, in need of strong medicine still. The good of the medicine as well is in view in the texts: the Resurrection is affirmed most clearly, most boldly, most gratefully. Turn off the TV, the iPods, the noise, and see the Lord, high and lifted up, for us, and be illumined. To understand with the heart, that is font of worship.