A Study Guide to Performing the Passion

Performing the Passion is a documentary produced by Margot Fassler and Jacqueline C. Richard at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in 2009. It features a contemporary performance of the 1725 version of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, conducted by Simon Carrington. Performers and scholars from Yale and elsewhere appear in the film. They describe and reflect upon this great work of musical art and the experience of performing it.

The following study guide is intended for groups of adults. It may be used in settings such as adult education programs, retreats, small faith communities, choir and sacred arts gatherings, and schools. This guide is written for the group leader who will shepherd the discussion and who will insure that all present are invited and encouraged to participate. (A handout of the discussion questions is provided below.) The introductions and questions may be adapted to those who participate, and simplified or shortened as needed.

Alternatively, the guide may be used by individuals as a self-study project, in which case journaling would take the place of discussion.

The film has been divided into two sections for the purposes of this study guide. The time frame for the study is three hours, including introductions, discussions, and a break. For large groups, additional time may need to be allotted.


Arrange the seating so that the participants form small groups (4–6 persons).
Materials: Handout, means of projection for the videos, white board or large sheet of paper, markers.

Begin (20 minutes)

  1. The leader welcomes everyone. If the participants do not already know one another, allow time for introductions within the small groups. Ask the participants to share their answers these questions: How familiar are you with the music of J.S. Bach? With the St. John Passion (very familiar, somewhat familiar, not at all familiar)? What do you find engaging about his music, if you are familiar with it?
  2. On a large sheet of paper or a white board, have the participants brainstorm a list of as many themes of the Passion of Jesus that they can think of (suffering, betrayal, etc.). In small groups, discuss: If you were preparing a creative musical presentation of the Passion today, what themes would you want to bring forward and why?

View Part I

Invite the participants to view the first portion of the video: “Performing the Passion, Part I.” (30 minutes)

produced by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music
with support from The Lilly Endowment, Inc.
©2009 Yale Institute of Sacred Music

Reflect and Discuss (30 minutes)

  1. In the 1725 version, shown in the video, the first theme that appears is human sinfulness and the call to repentance (“Humankind, bewail your great sin.”). Later, we hear about Peter’s betrayal and the joy and difficulty of being a follower of Jesus. How do these themes compare with the ones you identified before watching the video? In your view, how do the themes of the Passion that Bach brings forward—the sin of humankind and the path of discipleship—affirm or challenge audiences today?
  2. Several aspects of musical preparation for performing the Passion were discussed in the video: how rehearsals are ordered, how soloists prepare for their roles, vocal techniques, etc. What impressed you as you watched these preparations for performing the Passion? Were there any surprises or questions raised for you? Discuss the implications of what was said in the film concerning musicianship.
  3. At one point in the video the observation is made that for Bach’s audience, “The chorales are the high point.” Why was this the case? For you as a listener today, how do the various musical forms (recitative, arias, chorales) make a difference in how you engage with the music? With the story?
  4. In its original liturgical setting, the first part of the Passion was followed by a one-hour sermon. Why do you think the sermon was inserted here, rather than at the end of the work? If you had to preach after having heard this much of the story, what sort of message would you proclaim?

BREAK (20 minutes)

View Part II (42 minutes)

Re-gather the group to view Part II of the video.

produced by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music
with support from The Lilly Endowment, Inc.
©2009 Yale Institute of Sacred Music

Reflect and Discuss (30 minutes)

  1. The charge that Bach’s St. John Passion is anti-Jewish is discussed in the video. What facts or observations in that discussion particularly impressed you? According to Christian theology “all of mankind is responsible” for the Passion. Therefore no one group bears the blame for the death of Jesus. Do you think this is well understood today? Why or why not?
  2. Rather than dwelling on the violence of the Crucifixion, St. John’s Passion presents us with an account of the glorification of the Son of God. How is the glorious quality of the Passion expressed in Bach’s portrayal? When the viola da gamba accompanies the words of Jesus from the cross, “It is finished,” what feeling does the music evoke in you? What is finished?
  3. A commenter in the video says, “The hero of Judah, Jesus, has won the struggle for all of us.” Bach expresses the intensity of this triumph in the music. But he then returns to the very intimate and personal response of the believer—a mixture of sorrow and hope. Why do you suppose Bach did not simply end on a triumphant note? Why do “floods of tears” follow, and what does this say about our human response to the Passion?
  4. A Eucharistic theology emerges in the final portion of Bach’s musical work. Jesus is the Paschal lamb; sins are forgiven and death is overcome through his suffering and triumph. How are these elements related to the Lord’s Supper / celebration of the Eucharist, as you understand it?
  5. The motet by Jacob Handl, inspired by Isaiah 57, starts with the words: “Behold how the righteous one dies / and no one takes notice; / the righteous are taken away, / and no one pays attention.” What does this text reveal about Christ’s Passion? What response does this ending invite from the listener?

Conclude (8 minutes)

Ask the participants to reflect on what they have learned in this study, and to identify an insight they want to remember. Depending on time, they may name that insight aloud to the whole group, or in their small groups, or to the person next to them.

Direct their attention to the list of materials for further reading, which appears on the handout, and encourage them to read them.

Conclude by thanking all who participated.


Click for PDF: Performing the Passion Participant Handout

This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Ferrone, Rita. (2015) “Study Guide to Performing the Passion,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 5. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: A Study Guide to Performing the Passion

Jews, Christians, and the Passion of Jesus

What do we do with biblical texts that are both vital to the life of the church and harmful to another religious tradition? To put it another way, how do we unleash the power in the story of the Passion of Jesus while acknowledging that this story has also served as raw material for harsh depictions of Jews as enemies of Christ, and thus of Christianity?

How do we teach sacred texts that have been used sacrilegiously? How do we expose the shadow side without blocking the light?


The accusation that Jews are implicated in the death of Jesus suffuses the New Testament, most explicitly the Gospel of John, but also the other three canonical gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul, of course, approaches the death of Jesus from many perspectives beyond who is responsible for the Crucifixion.

These texts, particularly the Passion narratives, are proclaimed in Christian worship; as scripture, they are sacred and normative writings. They cannot merely be set aside. Entire liturgical celebrations are built around the story in those Christian traditions that observe Holy Week.

Further, the fundamental plot line of these texts is widely known, even among those largely unschooled in the Christian tradition. Although its underlying argument is the more abstract claim that Jews “rejected” Jesus, this allegation comes alive through a drama of good versus evil, of innocent suffering and ultimate vindication. The characters are memorable, especially the villainous ones (e.g., Judas, Caiaphas, the chief priests and elders of the people, “the Jews”). Scenes from the various Passion narratives have dominated Christian art, been enacted in Passion plays and films, and been a staple of sacred music. One need never have picked up a New Testament to know the basic contours of the story of the Crucifixion of Jesus and the events leading to it. Or you could pick up Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Jesus.

Yet, while familiar with the plot of the Passion story, relatively few Christians are cognizant of its consequences for Jews. In part, this stems from the demographic reality that most Christians in the world do not encounter Jews in their daily lives. As a result, the church’s relationship with Judaism seems tangential to their practice of Christianity. In some respects this is understandable, particularly in communities overwhelmed by poverty and violence; their degree of dislocation is already so severe that further immersion in the shadow side of the tradition could be paralyzing. Yet it is also likely that Christians in such communities, typically lacking the resources and opportunities for knowledge of the history, will therefore continue in the inadequate view of Judaism that has been part of the tradition. Still others prefer to look away from our tradition’s shadow side, lest it give credence to contemporary secular critics who revile theism, claiming that “religion poisons everything.”[1]

But whether or not Christians encounter Jews in their daily lives, we are obliged to honor the commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16 and Deut. 5:20).

To put it plainly: Christians have used texts to bear false witness against Jews, albeit often because they assumed that the texts were factual. In this graced moment in history, however, we have both the resources to read ancient texts in new ways and the ethical obligation to do so. This is not a matter of rewriting but of rereading and reinterpreting them.


Thinking pedagogically about how to help Christians confront the shadow side of our tradition gave rise to a threefold heuristic of “tellings”: a trembling telling, a troubling telling, and a transformed telling. These three tellings structure the three major sections of my book, Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians. A word on each of them:

Trembling Tellings. Stories of Jesus’s death lie at the core of Christian identity. They offer an encounter with his experience of the human condition: betrayals by those closest to him, his own fear of death, uncertainty about God’s will, and the endurance of terrible suffering and an ignominious death. These stories cause us to “tremble, tremble, tremble,” as the great spiritual “Were You There?” expresses it. Moreover, the dying and rising of Jesus lies at the center of Christian liturgical life, spirituality, creeds, and doctrines. It has evoked centuries of reflection, given rise to meaningful rituals, inspired art and music, been the subject of theological exploration, motivated persons to sacrifice themselves for a cause greater than themselves, and sustained persons through times of suffering. The stories of Jesus’s death lie at the heart of what is sacred in Christianity.

Precisely because of their sacredness and the manner in which many Christians hold them dear, one must first acknowledge the power that these stories hold in various communities: the Passion as a symbol of resistance to evil, including protest against violence, racism, torture, poverty, and militarism; the Passion as a mirror of people’s suffering; and the Passion and Resurrection as the Paschal Mystery at the heart of Christian life. There is even a crucifix scratched on the wall of cell #2 in the infamous “Death Block” of Auschwitz I, a place of torture and death primarily for non-Jewish political prisoners.[2]

These are stories “rightly told.” Redeeming Christianity’s sacred story first requires respect, even awe, for its power for good.

Troubling Tellings. Yet these “tellings” have also glorified suffering, condoned passivity in the face of violence, and constricted the meaning of Salvation by associating it only with Jesus’s death—as if his life and ministry held little meaning. These “troubling tellings” are the subject of considerable reappraisal today, particularly among feminist theologians. Yet insufficient attention has been paid to an even more troubling telling: misinterpretations of the Passion narratives that have rationalized hostility to and violence against Jews as “Christ killers.” This sacrilegious telling cries out for redemption—an unfinished task for Christians.

The key move here is to connect the texts, their interpretations and their effects—Wirkungsgeschichte, the history of a text’s influence over time. Dorothee Sölle terms this a “hermeneutics of consequences.”[3]

Those who become more aware of the power of the Passion story must then confront its deadly aspects by looking closely at the way in which it has functioned over the centuries. This critical assessment involves examining New Testament texts about the death of Jesus that provided raw materials for hostility towards Jews. It then follows the way in which Christians have interpreted those narratives in apocryphal texts, commentaries, sermons, formal teaching, and popular culture. It also involves probing the element of continuity between Christian teaching and preaching and the Holocaust.

Transformed Tellings. But respect and critique must be complemented by reconstruction. This reconstructive task is multifaceted. It involves drawing on contemporary modes of biblical scholarship that shed new light on the historical circumstances of the death of Jesus, especially the way in which crucifixion functioned in the Roman Empire as a mode of state terrorism to intimidate subject peoples and slaves into passivity. It requires exploring complicated matters of religious identity in the early centuries of the Common Era. It also entails formulating principles for interpreting New Testament texts in our time.

Moreover, we must make connections between Christian spirituality and a willingness to acknowledge the historical wounds that Christianity has inflicted. This requires a kind of vulnerability that refuses to be defensive in the face of disquieting truths. Facing our history—being responsive to it—involves dying to notions of Christianity that see it as only a force for good in the world.

Facing the tragic consequences of our troubling texts and seeking interpretations that are more just goes to the heart of the Passion. Michael Barnes, a scholar of the religions of India, suggests that the experience of Christians learning to relate to the religious Other mirrors Christ facing death.[4] In the language of Christian spirituality, interreligious encounter is an experience of the Paschal Mystery, a dying to the small, protected world of the self and a conversion to the “providential mystery of otherness.”

Writing Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians has given me greater appreciation for the depth of Christianity’s sacred story, and the obligation to live daily the process of redeeming it—and in that process, rediscovering the Cross of Jesus amid the crosses of history.




Mary Boys is the Dean of Academic Affairs and Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A Roman Catholic and a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names, she has a longstanding interest in liturgical and pastoral interpretations of Scripture.


[1] See Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2009).

[2] See Teresa and Henryk Świebocki, Auschwitz: The Residence of Death, trans. William Brand (Kraków and Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Bialy Kruk, 2003).

[3] Cited in Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 91.

[4] Michael Barnes, Theology and the Dialogue of Religions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 207.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Boys, Mary. (2015) “Jews, Christians, and the Passion of Jesus,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 4. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: Jews, Christians, and the Passion of Jesus

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

 This sermon on John 18:1–19, 42 was delivered at St. Thomas More Chapel and Center at Yale University on Good Friday, March 29, 2013.

“And there they crucified him.” The lengthy Passion narrative with its betrayals, sufferings, and the host of people who crowd the narrative—disciples, Judas, soldiers, guards, a high priest’s slave named Malchus, Annas, Caiphas, the gatekeeper-maid, Peter, another slave of the High Priest, Pilate, the two who are crucified with Jesus—all of this turmoil comes to a halt in one short sentence: “And there they crucified him.”

It will not be long before another short sentence brings the whole of Jesus’s earthly life to its close: Jesus “hands over his spirit.” He tastes death. Jesus, the human face of God, who entered our human existence, experiences the end of that existence.

On one level, Jesus’s death is simply the other end of the arc that began with his birth: He truly became one with us, in being born. He truly now becomes one of us in dying. Granted, this death came at a relatively early point in life—but then, so do many deaths in our world. And yes, Jesus’s death did not only come early and was violently inflicted; it was also exceedingly painful, indeed torturous. Yet Jesus’s death was probably no more torturous than the dying of a young woman on a bus in India some months ago. The young woman had been abducted, repeatedly violated in the most brutal, dehumanizing ways imaginable, savagely beaten and then left to die.

Why, then, have people for close to two thousand years gathered around the story of Jesus’s Passion and death? And why do we continue to ask each other, in the words of the song we will soon sing: “Were you there?” “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The answer for all of us after all is: No. We were not there, two thousand years ago. Yet the liturgy of Good Friday labors, as no other liturgy in the year, to render present Jesus’s dying in our midst, to make it coterminous with our own lives. I suggest to you that in doing so, this liturgy is seeking to embody a particular truth: Good Friday is about being there, about being present, about com-passion, and suffering with. As it was on that Friday so long ago, so it is also today.

Some months ago I was struck by the report of a conference on palliative medicine. The conference focused on doctors caring for terminally ill patients. One of the presenters reported that many doctors feel compelled to “do something” in the face of death, often in the form of continuing aggressive treatments, although the doctors themselves know that those treatments are futile. The palliative care expert suggested that instead of “doing something,” one’s calling might rather be this: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

I myself by now am old enough (and have lived in this culture for long enough) to have heard many Good Friday sermons that preach the opposite, namely: “Don’t just stand there, do something: go, give, share, love!” No doubt those are crucial imperatives. Yet there is a danger if they become the only and the whole truth we embrace on Good Friday. Why? Because this message—“Do something!”—suggests that simply being there, standing at the foot of the cross, is an inadequate and poor response. We need to do something, so the thinking goes, for Jesus’s death to be meaningful—as if Jesus’s death on the cross were meaningless, unless we ourselves give it meaning.

In and for this liturgy on the Friday of the Passion of the Lord, I suggest to you that, on the contrary, it is not us and our doing that give meaning to Christ’s death. God has already done that, when God faced down dying and death on Good Friday and on Easter morning spoke a powerful “no” to the finality of the death of Jesus. That act, that doing of God—rather than our own—is the ultimate word on the meaning of Good Friday.

Our calling in this liturgy is to let Christ’s death give meaning to our lives. And, for that to take place, our presence, our “just standing there” is all the liturgy asks of us. Yet this is no easy task. “Just standing there” actually is a profound challenge, especially for people like us. We do not just want to stand there, and that with empty hands. We want to do something, and move into action. If nothing else, such action at least lessens and covers our own feelings of helplessness. Yet, “just standing there”—truly being present to the agony of the other and to our own helplessness in the face of it—is the calling of this liturgy. It is also what those few disciples did who did not flee: Mary the mother of Jesus, the beloved disciple, the other women at the foot of the cross. What, after all, can disciples do when the feet of the one they were following are nailed to a cross? These few disciples remained at the feet of Jesus and the foot of the cross, standing there in com-passion, in suffering with. Such presence, such real presence, is our calling too, in this liturgy. The doing will follow, and more deeply, the deeper we have been present to the agony of the cross.

Where is the Good News in this? The Good News, for our “being there,” is that Good Friday is not primarily about remembering as a form of thinking back. Rather, Christians believe that the One who was crucified and died is also the One who continues to live in our midst as the Risen One. The Friday of the Passion of the Lord, after all, is not really about remembering the death of a good, decent, wrongfully convicted human being; it is about so much more. Good Friday reveals God’s gift of God’s self unto death for the life of the world, a gift that gives meaning to our lives and redeems, not only us but the whole cosmos.

What would it mean, then, for you simply to practice presence in this Good Friday liturgy? To let the meaning of your life—its deepest mystery, its places of profound pain where quick fixes are impossible—reveal itself as you stand under the cross, as you venerate this cross as the place where the feet of Jesus, whom you seek to follow, were brought to a halt. Simply stand there for a moment, at the foot of the cross. And hear your name being called from this place of presence: Mary mother of mercy; John beloved disciple; Elisabeth my sister; Carolyn my friend; Father Eddie and Father Bob; Katie, Janet, Stefan, Teresa . . . Know that your very being is redeemed and made whole at the foot of the cross and in the presence of the Crucified One.


Teresa Berger is Professor of Liturgical Studies and Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Catholic Theology at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.  Her scholarly interests lie at the intersection of theological and liturgical studies with gender theory. Her publications include Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History; Dissident Daughters: Feminist Liturgies in Global Context; and Fragments of Real Presence: Liturgical Traditions in the Hands of Women.  She has also written on the hymns of Charles Wesley and on the nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic revival. She was editor of Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace, essays from the 2011 ISM Liturgy Conference.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Berger, Teresa. (2015) “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 3. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There