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Devotion: PASSION defined

Prior to our concert at the Basilica on April 30, NLC soprano section leader, Linda Armstrong, gave this devotion before the choir. 
 
Recently we heard some biographical information about Alexandre Gretchaninoff in our devotion time. Some … but not a lot. Because there isn’t a lot. I Googled Gretchaninoff and found about three paragraphs about his life and works.  I checked for books about him at Barnes and Noble…..no such thing.  There are many books about JS Bach, and he wrote passions on St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. John.  I can’t figure out why we don’t know more about Gretchaninoff and his life. 
 
So, I resorted to just thinking about my first encounter with him.  Here I am, in the Old Main building at Augsburg College, at my first rehearsal with Leland Sateren, having been chosen as a soprano in the choir.  Our first piece to be rehearsed was “Our Father” by Gretchaninoff.  I had not heard the piece before, but I could not believe those first few minutes in that rehearsal; the sound from the basses behind me, the glorious rich, lush chords measure after measure, the immediate attention to musical detail and the way my spirit felt as I joined in.  It was really heaven and I was changed.  It was a moment I will never forget.  So that is who Gretchaninoff is to me.  And now, having learned this passionate “Passion Week,” I have a new memory I will never forget.
 
PASSION defined: intense feeling, ardor, great emotion, deep desire. But in this case, the suffering of Jesus during the week of his crucifixion. I think in this work, we have both definitions working. One can definitely be part of the other. I told this story to the sopranos a while back and I’ll share it with all of you. I have my two young choirs at church sing for a children’s service on Good Friday each year. Imagine trying to find Good Friday children’s anthems that don’t detail the suffering of Jesus! So the one I chose this year was “Saw Ye My Savior,” an old, out-of-print unison anthem by David Johnson (not OUR David Johnson). It refers to Jesus as he was nailed to the cross and how he hung in pain and bowed his head and died.  Well, it created many questions with my 1st and 2nd graders. So we discussed the crucifixion and they wanted to know why and how and where. One 2nd grader dropped to her knees in obvious anguish and said loudly, “I just can’t sing this anymore! It just hurts me too much.” I know we all have had that feeling when hearing about or singing about our Lord’s suffering and death.
 
And so we are singing a “Passion,” much like the St. John’s and St. Matthew’s that many of us have performed before and that come directly from the gospel accounts. But this work is so different! The Orthodox texts treat the story in such a beautiful poetic and thought provoking way.  Consider the English translation in the fourth movement:
 
Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal One-
The Heavenly Father, holy and blessed – O Jesus Christ!
Now that we have come to the setting of the sun,
And behold the light of evening,
We praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – God.
Thou art worthy at every moment
To be praised in hymns by reverent voices.
O Son of God, Thou art the Giver of Life;
Therefore all the world glorifies Thee.
 
This text is the earliest known Christian hymn text outside of the Bible that is still in use today.  Lutheran Book of Worship has a setting of it, but it didn’t make it into the ELW. However, it is still widely sung in the Orthodox Christian Church’s Vesper service.
 
All the texts of “Passion Week” are glorious and, for me, take the story of the passion to a different level, way beyond the gospel stories. I don’t exactly feel like falling to my knees in anguish over the pain of Christ’s death, but instead feel free to praise God for the great gift he gave us in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We begin and end the work with “Alleluia” – how fitting for us to join the ranks of angels; principalities and powers, cherubim and seraphim singing the hymn: Alleluia!
 
As we conclude the year and the final movement of Gretchaninoff’s “Passion Week,” let us be aware of some of Christ’s final words after his resurrection – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  What a rich promise he gives us; a promise that brings peace to his believers, no matter what the test. As we prepare for tonight’s concert, I would like to share a Native American Prayer with you called “The Circle of Life.”
 
Fear not that which is now.
Fear not that which is to come.
Life, death, and being are one.
It is a circle. There is no beginning and no end.
For that which is the beginning is the end of the other.
Surely the lessons of life are the wisdom of death.
Those that live in the knowledge of what the circle truly is
Have peace beyond measure.
Amen.