The Seven Last Words of Christ: Singing the Passion

n-s-dos-passos-19St. Norbert College hosts the Dudley Birder Chorale, a 150-voice choir under the direction of 89-year-old Mr. Birder himself for over 40 years.  While I am a member, I haven’t been able to participate in recent years because I’ve been pursuing a Masters degree.  But this semester, finding myself without a class, I seized the opportunity to sing once again, if only for a two-performance run.  Thus, on the 13th of March, I found myself back in my tux performing The Seven Last Words of Christ by Theodore Dubois, a musical setting of the last moments before Jesus’s crucifixion.  You can find many performances of this work on YouTube, in both English and Latin.

We performed the piece in Latin but offered reflections before each movement, allowing everyone to understand each section.  These reflections, Dudley’s insistence on singing the musical phrases and not the notes, and my own need to decode the Latin, forced me to really consider what I was singing, which ultimately lead to this being one of the most meaningful concerts I’ve ever sung.  Here are some of the thoughts I had as we sang this.  I hope they aid your Triduum reflection.

First Word: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do

The power of this movement comes from the juxtaposition of Jesus’s prayer of forgiveness (sung by a soloist) with the chanting of the crowd (sung by the choir).  Here we are, a huge mob of people, insisting that Jesus is guilty and deserves crucifixion, even welcoming the blood that will be on our hands, while Jesus is asking God to forgive us.  It caused me to think of all the times when someone merely frustrates me and the best prayer I can seem to offer is not that they are forgiven but that I can keep my cool.

Second Word: Verily, thou shalt be in Paradise to-day with me.

Smarter minds than me have pointed out that only Luke’s Gospel has Jesus promising the repentant criminal that he will get to be with him in Paradise.  The words of the criminal — not a plea for forgiveness, but only desiring the gift of a passing thought — remind us to be humble.  Jesus’s response reminds us that God’s justice is not our justice and that God’s mercy is tremendous.

Fifth Word: I am athirst!

Jesus’s desire for something to quench his thirst, a most basic human need, goes up against a crowd of people taunting him to come down from the cross so that they might believe in him.  In singing this movement, the scorn of the crowd flows through me in a real way; I am faced with, and scared by, my own capacity for cruelty.  I don’t completely comprehend all this evil, but I can offer Jesus my thanks for having endured it.

Seventh Word: It is finished!

Jesus’s final words are echoed by the entire choir in a whisper, accentuating how used up Jesus’s earthly body is.  Then the organ takes over and you can just picture the curtain being torn in the chaos that comes out of the pipes.  Finally, the movement transitions into Adoramus Te, Christe.  After yelling at Jesus for so much of the work, it is a welcome relief to end with a song of praise.  Augustine was right when he said, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

About the author: Francis Beaumier is on the leadership team for the Dignity Young Adult Caucus and an active member of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Family as well as Angels of Hope Metropolitan Community Church. He currently works for Brown County Library as an IT Specialist and is pursuing a Master’s in Liberal Studies at St. Norbert College.


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