I found a song for you, a moving rendition of a piece that’s usually performed very differently. Minimize those other tabs, close your eyes, and just listen for a few minutes.
Sounds different (and much better) than it normally does, right? When something is heard anew it can strike us in fresh ways. So let me walk you through a meditation on Holy Week, led by Johnny Cash.
From the first chord struck, it’s obvious that Cash is singing in his native style. He’s taken a spiritual, often awkwardly adopted as a hymn, and sung it with fitting country blues. While it has the blues’ expression of sadness, here it’s also an expression of faith. He has made the song his own, and although this adoption may have rendered it inappropriate for the liturgy, it has certainly imbued a tired song with new life.
At the same time, this sounds a little different from many of Cash’s songs, which tend to be moving and rhythmic in the blues. He sang, “Get rhythm when you get the blues,” because music can be a cathartic release, and a good rhythm can cheer the heart and alleviate sadness. But singing about the Passion of Christ is different. The Passion causes a sorrow that’s unlike those sorrows which “a jumpy rhythm” can shake from your wearied mind. When we see Christ on the Way of the Cross, we experience a transcendent sorrow that reveals the depths of God’s love for us sinners. Good music reflects that love by making suffering poignant, not by making it disappear.
Perhaps the song’s most poignant moment is in the rendition of the line “Oh, it causes me to tremble.” A woman’s voice, alone and accompanied, lets out an “Oh” that is more a cry of anguish than a melodic line. She settles through a few notes before falling into the word “tremble,” where she is joined one by one by the other voices in a harmony that’s full of tension and almost dissonant; then they all fall away. It’s the most arresting point of the song and marks the most important moment: this song is first and foremost about trembling.
These moments highlight how, in Cash’s arrangement, the male and female voices of the call and response refrain reflect the men and women in Scripture. For “there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25)—every other Apostle (save the beloved disciple who stood by and received Jesus’s mother) had fled the scene of the Passion. These men would have indeed asked the women, “were you there?” And Mary might have answered with a cry, trembling at the humiliation of her son.
He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross … So then, my beloved, obedient as you have been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil 2:8, 12)
The proper response to the vision of God’s love, made manifest in Christ’s Incarnation and Passion, is fear and trembling; not a servile fear of punishment but a filial reverence for God’s holiness and an awareness of how incredibly majestic He is. As Scripture says, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 1:7), and it is this trembling in awe of God’s goodness and power and love that unites our experiences of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through the Easter Vigil.
On Holy Thursday, the priest prays during the consecration, “On the day before he was to suffer for our salvation and the salvation of all, that is today, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands.” And we tremble to recall the generosity that established the Eucharist on the first Holy Thursday.
On Holy Saturday, as the ancient homily portrays, “There is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.”
On Easter, the Exultet proclaims that “this is the night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.” And again this causes us to tremble in amazement.
Over the course of this week, we experience the most powerful and yet most easily overlooked message of Cash’s rendition. It causes him to tremble in each verse: “when they crucified my Lord,” “when they took him from the cross,” “when they laid him in the tomb,” and equally “when the stone was rolled away.” Did you catch that? Cash transitions, without any musical change, from the Passion to the Resurrection. Both are astonishing, both reveal God’s ineffable love, both provoke trembling.
Throughout this Holy Week, we pray to God: may your salvific love cause us to tremble with a holy fear at the “wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!”
Image: Sandro Botticelli, Transfiguration (detail)