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In the sweeping narrative of Holy Week, today Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover meal, one last supper before Jesus is handed over to the crowd sent by the chief priests and the elders. We begin a chaotic journey, moving from one place to another, one crowd to another, one torturous moment to another, before Jesus finally breathes his last. Tonight or tomorrow, many of us will gather to hear the story of those tumultuous hours, covering the span of these events in an hour or so.

It’s a brisk pace, and as such it can be difficult to enter into the story, to feel the weight of each moment, to stay long enough in any one place or with any one character to experience the gravity of what is happening.

Which is not to disparage such church services. Not every congregation can gather for three hours on a Friday, or meet on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. By some necessity we move through the story rather quickly.

But I am, then, grateful for the way the arts provide means of entering the story in a way that a straightforward retelling of the story from the pulpit simply cannot.

This week I’ve been immersed in choral music that tells the passion story, rehearsing Bach’s “St. John Passion” every evening in anticipation of tomorrow evening’s concert. But before singing I wanted to listen, so this past Sunday afternoon I sat in the sanctuary of St. Matthew’s Lutheran church in downtown Kitchener to hear the Elora Singers present music of the passion and resurrection. One of the first pieces was Arvo Pärt’s “The Woman with the Alabaster Box.” It’s a simple piece, a choral retelling of Matthew 26:6-13. Two days before the Passover, Jesus is in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper, when a woman comes to him and pours expensive perfume on his head. Pärt sets the Biblical text to music – there is no elaboration or expansion of the story.

And yet the story is expanded through the music. When I read Matthew 26:6-13 aloud, I can do so in 45 seconds. In “The Woman with the Albaster Box,” we sit in the exact same text for 6 minutes. Pärt uses a compositional style he created called Tintinnabuli, in which the melody holds closely to the three notes of a tonic triad, or climbs and descends by increasingly greater intervals. It feels chant-like, contemplative.
The majority of the piece gets taken up with Jesus (the basses and tenors) speaking to the disciples. He follows an ascending line, stepping from tonic note to second, then tonic to third, and so on, as he proclaims, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me,” reaching the largest interval – a minor-9th, on the word “upon.” This is the climax of the piece, Jesus commending the woman for her act of adoration and love.

And as I sat in that sanctuary on Sunday, it was Jesus’ love for the woman that I felt. Because the piece moves slowly, it felt as though Jesus were paying attention to the woman, giving her care, taking care with his words, making sure the disciples understood that not only had the woman performed a great act of devotion, but she herself was worthy of attention, worthy of love. When I read this text, I tend to focus on Jesus’ words, “The poor you will always have with you,” and I wonder what that means. Listening to the Elora Singers on Sunday, my attention went, perhaps for the first time, most fully to Jesus’ love of the woman.

The story of the woman with the alabaster jar came back later in the concert, prefacing the first movement of Ēriks Ešenvalds’ “Passion and Resurrection,” a 21st century four-movement work narrating, in rather disjointed fashion, the Passion story. Ešenvalds pieces together snapshots of Gospel texts and Byzantine liturgies, setting them to music akin to Pärt’s, with chant-like step melodies, including a five-hundred-year-old motet by the Spanish Renaissance composer Christóbal de Morales. Throughout the piece a soprano soloist plays a Marian part, first as the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, then as an observer lamenting the suffering of the grieving mother, and finally as Mary Magdalene, who encounters Jesus in the garden on that morning when all was thought lost.

It was this moment that had me in tears on Sunday afternoon. After the choir triumphantly declares that Christ is risen, a quartet in the balcony sings, “Woman, why weepest thou? Woman, whom seekest thou?” to which the solo voice of Mary replies, “Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.”

There is a breath of silence.

And then the quartet sings, ever gently, ever softly, “Mariam.”

“Mariam. Mariam. Mariam.” Over and over again, Jesus calls her name, growing louder as the rest of the choir joins in the song, adding layers of harmony, overlapping each other as they speak Mary’s name in tenderness and love. Finally, the soloist adds her voice to the mix, full of surprise and wonder, as she declares that which she now knows to be true: “Rabboni!” For a full two minutes, this is the only conversation: Jesus speaking the name of his beloved follower, Mary speaking the name of her Messiah, over and over again until the music fades away into silence.

And in those two minutes, I was there, in the garden, tears welling in my eyes as I watched a despairing woman discover that all is not lost, and beheld the love with which Jesus called her by name. As with “The Woman with the Alabaster Box,” the lengthening of time allowed for a deeper contemplation of the story, helped me enter the story in a new way. Helped me enter the love. Helped me experience, even in the midst of the chaos of his final days, how Jesus took time and care with those he loved.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    In memory of her.

  • Ruth says:

    So many of your posts reflect on music as the courier and enhancer of important insights. 1 + 1 + 3 or more. Thank you!

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Very, very moving description. And the music of the spheres. Ineffable. Sublime.
    Thank you Laura.

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    May we all sit still for 2 minutes this week and hear Jesus say our name over and over with all the love he has for us….

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Laura, for preparing us so poignantly for these last days of Holy Week!
    I’m listening now to the Netherlands Bach Society’s performance of St. John Passion.

  • Jim Olthuis says:

    I was moved to tears.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    “If music be the food of love play on”. In this Holy Week, the rise and fall of the music of gifted composers brings the song of love from our Lord. Thank you for bringing this to our souls today.

  • jack roeda says:

    Thank you!

  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    Thank you, Laura, for your profound listening to and clear writing about these modern masterworks. Truly God is worshipped profoundly in this music and in art. Blessings on you as sing the St. John Passion!

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