Bach/Sellars: St. Matthew Passion

At a conference for nonprofits earlier this month, Jason Tomassini from Atlantic Media said of digital communications strategy that the new approach is to do missionary work as opposed to building cathedrals. Given how many centuries it took for Notre Dame to be completed, this makes sense: How many lives during 182 years of missionary work can be affected over the ensuing 673 years? (Not to mention the ripple effect that altering the course of one life can have.) Historically speaking, what would the compound interest of that look like compared to the number of people who have entered Notre Dame’s sanctuary?

"Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir" performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, staged by Peter Sellars

I was thinking about this in tandem with Peter Sellars’s 2010 staging of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for the Berlin Philharmonic. At first blush, it comes across like a cathedral of a work. You can imagine the wall of sound it must have produced upon its Good Friday premiere in 1727: two choirs, two orchestras, twelve singers, eight soloists. The opening chorus swirls into a tidal wave of reverence, lachrymosa, and evangelism.

But peeling back the layers, as Sellars did with his performers (minimal, all-black, semi-formal at best costumes; no hint of rosary windows in the sets), there’s a greater sense of intimacy and immediacy. Arias like “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” feel like one-on-one devotionals as opposed to packed-to-the-rafters Sunday sermons. And, regardless of your religious or spiritual predilection, you get the sense of why we believe. It’s not the cathedrals; it’s the missionaries. We don’t need to feel overwhelmed by trying to accomplish big global changes in our lifetimes; affecting one other person — hell, sometimes even just affecting ourselves — is enough.

Magdalena Kozena, Daniel Stabrawa, and Mark Padmore in St. Matthew Passion (Photo: Andreas Knapp/Berlin Philharmonic)

Magdalena Kozena, Daniel Stabrawa, and Mark Padmore in St. Matthew Passion (Photo: Andreas Knapp/Berlin Philharmonic)

Today’s Contemplation

We often come to meditation with grand goals and aspirations. To eliminate all stress, to rewrite old habits, to sleep better at night or be more productive with our days. Can you consider these big, ambitious changes to be cathedrals? And within that, can you consider the intentions or small actions that would correlate as missionary work? Maybe it’s that fight you didn’t pick with your partner, or the afternoon you didn’t feel the need to constantly check Facebook and instead focus on a work project. How does it feel to acknowledge these accomplishments, which taken on their own may seem small, but viewed in perspective can be taken as watershed moments, ripples echoing out?