Wagner may not be to your taste. He is a Marmite composer: you either love him or loathe him. But he is one of those alongside Bach and Handel whom I turn to on Good Friday. And one of his works in particular, his last music drama Parsifal.
Not to try your patience unduly, here's all you need to know about Parsifal. Its theme is the quest for the Holy Grail, the redemption of the world, and the healing of an eternal wound. Redemption comes through an innocent young man (Parsifal, or as he's better known in the Arthurian Legend, Percival). He is the "pure fool" who is innocent of the world's evil, does not know wrong and can therefore resist the seductions of pride, power, lust and self-interest. The message is: if our destructive human instincts can be transcended by self-giving and purity of heart, everything will be transfigured, universal love will redeem the world, and humanity will be set on a path of wisdom and goodness.
You don't have to buy the entire philosophical package to succumb to the rapturous music. All Wagner's music dramas are about redemption in one form or another, but Parsifal is the most luminous of them all, and the one that most clearly displays its debt to Christianity. Wagner's syncretic mysticism may not strike us as altogether orthodox, but the central role the eucharist plays in Parsifal shows that its the Christian tradition where the composer has sought his primary inspiration.
In Act 3, there is a ravishing interlude known as the "Good Friday Music". It's often played as a concert piece in its own right. At this point in the drama, Parsifal, exhausted by his travels, stops to rest in a beautiful sunny meadow full of flowers. The knight is entranced by the springtime radiance all around him. He learns that this is due to the magic spell of Good Friday when all of nature is glad because it is cleansed from its sin on this day. In this music, a serene sound-world is created that sings of beauty, tranquility, healing, goodness and love. It sets the scene for the climax of this enormous work where the wound is finally healed, humanity reborn and resolution achieved.
Good Friday is a day to think about the fatal wound that pierces our world, and the endless, calamitous destructiveness that comes from it. The liturgy of the day doesn't flinch from exposing us to the innocent victim who was inhumanly murdered on this day. Nor does it flinch from exhibiting the instrument of his execution. We gaze silently at the cross, reverence it, embrace it, kiss it, think our thoughts, shed our tears, lament for what became of this righteous man. We even sing to this horrendous machine of pain and torture in words like those of the Crux Fidelis:
Faithful Cross! above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron
Sweetest weight is hung on thee!
It's extraordinary, when you think about it. And among the many thoughts we bring to our Good Friday worship is that this Jesus who has done no wrong stands for millions and millions of other victims across the centuries who like him do not deserve this destiny. Their innocence, his innocence, was not enough to save them from this hour.
It's right that we think such thoughts, however painful. And not just think them. A vital part of the Good Friday liturgy is to offer the Solemn Prayers from the Cross. At this point in the service, we take time especially to remember the victims of cruelty and conflict in our own day when there seems no end to the terrible ordeals people are intent on inflicting on one another. But we mustn't think our thoughts or pray our prayers hopelessly. Indeed, to turn thought into prayer is precisely to make the decision never to succumb to despair, easy though it would be. It is to resolve that prayer, and the action that flows out of it, will place us on the side of truth against the lie, the side of everyone who intends good for the world, not evil. If we are a people of the Cross, then we want to do everything we can to be a part of the work of redemption, impossible though that may look at times. Or if we can't quite yet want to be part of it, we can maybe "want to want to".
So the serenity of Wagner's Good Friday Music isn't an escape from the turmoil of a troubled world. It isn't in the music drama, and it isn't in real life. It's a promise of redemption where everything is put right in creation and in our human life and relationships. It often feels like hoping against hope, yet that's precisely what we are called to do in the New Testament. So if, at Easter, we decorate the cross with greenery and flowers and make it beautiful, we aren't denying what it is, this engine of death. What we are doing is to make our defiant statement of hope precisely because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The wound of humanity may look fatal, but what flows from the wound in the side of Jesus, the water and the blood, hold the source of healing our world hungers for.
And when we sing alleluia again on Easter Day, it isn't to deny suffering, cruelty and pain but to imagine the cosmos as it will one day be, gathered up in the risen, glorified Christ in whom all things hold together, and when he is all in all.
This is why, of all the days of the year, this is the one we call "Good". It's why we celebrate the cross as well as lament it. Because we know that at Golgotha, our lives are given back to us, and our hope is restored. It's the beginning of Paradise Restored.
We need Good Friday music and places for quiet hope more than ever. For everyone's sake. For God's sake.