We live in a Godless age – but to understand modern suffering, revisit the Easter story

'We all understand pain, grief and loss': Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ (1602)
'We all understand pain, grief and loss': Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ (1602) - Alamy
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I visited Jerusalem three times towards the end of last year, reporting on the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attacks, and Israel’s military response in Gaza. One day I found myself on the Via Dolorosa, the narrow streets and alleys in the heart of the Old City, usually teeming with tourists buying kitsch souvenirs in the rabbit warren of little shops, now shuttered and bereft of life because of war.

Via Dolorosa literally means “The Way of Sorrows”, marking the Stations of the Cross, the route that Jesus supposedly took from Pontius Pilate’s palace where he was sentenced to death, to the site of his crucifixion on the hill at Golgotha, beyond the city walls. I felt a heavy weight of sadness walking the time-worn stones, reflecting on the conflict currently engulfing the region, but also on Christ’s procession through these very streets, his suffering symbolic of the pain now being endured by others.

On Friday, I will be narrating the Passion, alongside the story’s many musical incarnations by composers such as Bach, Handel, Hildegard of Bingen and Andrew Lloyd Webber, performed by the BBC Singers. And through words and music, I hope to find the meaning of this tortured man – his head bloodied from a crown of thorns, his back scourged after being whipped at the pillar, buckling under the weight of the cross. Why do we celebrate such suffering as a central part of the Christian tradition, and find in it the inspiration for some of our most profound and moving works of art?

In the late 1950s my mother was a teacher in a school affiliated with the Catholic church near her home, in the town of Sheffield in western Jamaica, before she moved to Britain with my dad the following decade, as part of the Windrush Generation. A crucifix hung on the wall of the living room in her new home in Bolton. Some of my earliest memories of childhood are of gazing upon this silver cross, one foot in height, above the mantelpiece. I also remember my mother every Easter Sunday using a teacup to catch rainwater she’d add to that day’s cooking. It was holy water, and collecting so-called “Easter Water” is a ritual still observed by Catholics in France and Germany.

In church and at school, I’d sing Easter hymns: the various settings of the 13th-century Stabat Mater, which tells of the Virgin Mary’s suffering during the crucifixion of her son. Many composers have spun heart-rending music from these ancient words: stunning melodies capturing bitter emotions, moving from tortured suffering to sheer beauty. Pergolesi composed his Stabat Mater while dying of tuberculosis at the age of 26. One imagines his illness would have caused him to cough up blood, the symbol of Christ’s suffering, and now evidence of his own pain.

Clive Myrie: 'It was as a teenager that I first encountered Handel and Bach's towering Passion works'
Clive Myrie: 'It was as a teenager that I first encountered Handel and Bach's towering Passion works' - Richard Ansett

Yet Rossini’s Stabat Mater, a supposedly sacred work, sounds suspiciously like one of his operas. It’s sacred bel canto! It feels sensual, romantic, even playful. I love it, and so did audiences in the 19th century. Theatres reverberated to the sounds of Rossini’s exuberant southern European interpretation of the Passion. When I listen to it, I find myself humming along and tapping my feet. Very strange.

In my teenage years I came across a very different take on the Passion story, in a school production of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s loose rendering of the Gospels’ accounts of the Passion. It was a radical telling, exploring the psychology of Jesus via a post-hippy rock opera, full of bell-bottomed trousers, sequins and tie dye T-shirts, befitting the early 1970s when it was first performed. The rock anthem songs are loud and proud, almost evangelical. Its film adaptation, directed by Norman Jewison in 1973, received the praise of Pope Paul VI. Apparently, His Holiness was deeply moved by the performance of the actress Yvonne Elliman, who played Mary Magdalene, saying that her song I Don’t Know How to Love Him, had an “inspired beauty”. I agree.

It was also as a teenager that I first encountered Handel and Bach’s towering Passion works. As a young violinist playing in the local youth orchestra, I always found the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah, representing Christ’s ascension into heaven, a stirring finale to an evening concert in the town hall. And I hear Bach’s deep devotion every time I listen to his magnificent St Matthew Passion, originally written for a double choir and double orchestra. It’s a majestic baroque banger, capable of filling any grand cathedral. “At a reverent performance of music,” Bach once wrote, “God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) - Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

By contrast, Hildegard of Bingen’s antiphon for the crucified, O cruor sanguinis, is a plaintive and solo voiced meditation on the need for Christ’s blood to be shed. Written in the 12th century, it’s a work that’s disturbingly evocative, perhaps because of its intimacy. Unlike Bach or Handel, it is not music written for public display but as a more private spiritual exercise. I first came across her work at university in the 1980s, a time when feminist musicologists were giving voice to neglected female composers. Despite being more than eight centuries old, her music seemed to me to chime with a modern desire for a more reflective spirituality, a more personal spiritual journey. Shorn of the paraphernalia of high church – no organs nor double choirs – O cruor’s power derives from its seeming simplicity.

The 1980s “greed is good” mentality of an increasingly secular society seemed to squeeze out any room for God, and that trajectory has continued. Organised religion has taken a hammering. Few of us take the time to go to church or pray together. But despite the more secular age in which we live, the Passion is the one chapter of the Christian story that still speaks to us all. The belief in an immaculate conception may not resonate, but we all understand pain, grief and loss, inevitable aspects of the human condition. We see suffering every day on the nightly news, with the grieving relatives of Hamas’s victims in southern Israel among the latest. In Gaza, the pictures of Palestinian mothers holding the bodies of their dead children, remind me of the Pietà: the image of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of the dead Christ that’s just been taken off the cross, and a subject represented by countless artists.

A church damaged by shelling in the village of Bohorodychne in the Donetsk region
A church damaged by shelling in the village of Bohorodychne in the Donetsk region - ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

In my 30-plus years as a journalist, I’ve seen so many images of mothers and fathers collapsed with grief clutching lifeless children, from Angola and Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, to Ukraine and Gaza. Often the parents are holding up their children as proof of man’s inhumanity to man, imploring us to look and to feel. Pietà means pity, and is that what the mothers and fathers want too? As with the images of Mary and Christ, perhaps most famously imagined by Michelangelo in his sculpture La Madonna della Pietà, I think such gestures aren’t asking for our pity, but for intervention, for help. It is a call to stop the killing.

It’s the reason why the BBC Singers and I are presenting our modern day retelling of the Passion story, with music spanning nearly a thousand years, alongside imagery from the 21st century’s bloodiest wars and conflicts. It’s intended as an opportunity to reflect on modern suffering – and a reminder that you don’t have to believe in God to find meaning in this very old and enduring human story.

News Just In: A Patchwork Passion, BBC Singers with Clive Myrie, is at Milton Court Concert Hall, London EC2 (barbican.org.uk) on Friday. The performance will be featured during Afternoon Concert on BBC Radio 3 throughout Holy Week, starting March 25

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