These words come from the Good Friday Music in Act III of Richard Wagner's final opera, 1882's Parsifal.
In 1858 Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk: "... if this suffering can have a purpose, it is simply to awaken a sense of fellow-suffering in man, who thereby absorbs the creature's defective existence and becomes the Redeemer of the world by recognizing the error of all existence. (This meaning will one day become clearer to you from the Good Friday morning scene in the third act of [Parsifal])."*
Parsifal was and remains one of Wagner's most controversial works, and also one of his most moving. (It's also, at an average running time of four-and-a-half hours - not including intermissions - one of the longest operas ever written.) And it's tempting to read too much into Parsifal. Tempting, and also dangerous. Although Wagner's references seem obviously to refer to Christ, others have said that they could apply to Buddist doctrine as well. In fact, if you read the libretto of the opera you'll notice that Parsifal himself speaks only of the Redeemer - in the famous Good Friday scene it is only Gurnemanz who mentions the name of God.
In addition, Wagner was, of course, a notorious anti-Semite, which makes Christian use of his words particularly dicey. And Wagner was never particularly accurate in his theology in the first place - he sees the Holy Grail as not only the vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper, but also the receptacle for the Blood that flowed after He was pierced by the Spear. (The sacred Spear is also crucial to the plot of Parsifal.) Read this essay from the 2003 Met Opera broadcast of Parsifal for more on Wagner's confused theology.
On the other hand...
Some point to Wagner's use of Good Friday (rather than Easter) as the day of redemption as a further misunderstanding of Christianity. But here I think we may be onto something. As we have stated many times in these pages, Catholics have what is perhaps a unique insight into the nature and necessity of suffering. Wagner recognizes, even if it's only inadvertenty, that without Christ's sacrifice on Good Friday there can be no Easter Sunday. This is the purpose for which He was born: to suffer and die for our sins, so that in His Resurrection we might all be reborn into eternal life.
And with this it's perhaps time to cut to the chase. Although it may be impossible for us to ever know exactly what Wagner had it mind when he wrote Parsifal, the fact remains that Parsifal has always been associated with Easter. Most classical music radio stations play selections from it on Good Friday (usually an arrangement featuring the Prelude and Transformation Scene in Act I and the Good Friday music from Act III). When the Met stages it, it's done around Eastertime, with the radio broadcast on the Saturday before Palm Sunday and a performance on Good Friday itself. Whatever Wagner might have intended, the popular interpretation (such as it is) is that it is a Christian work.
And what a work. The music, some of Wagner's most stunning and lovely, emphasizes Alan Wagner's comment that "The contradictions melt away, transfigured, in the incredible beauty of his music." For those disposed to view it through a Christian lens, the symbolism and meaning are powerful and moving. For an opera there are unusually long stretches where there is no singing at all, just the "beauty of his music."
And the message is there: in the Act I commemoration of the Last Supper, and of Parsifal's sharing in the suffering of the Amfortas, ailing leader of the knights who serve as guardians of the Holy Grail (Parsifal feels in his heart the pain fron the wound in Amfortas' side, a wound that is the result of past sin, a wound that refuses to heal). In Act II, where the temptress Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal into sin (as she had Amfortas) - first by an appeal to sensual pleasures with a kiss (the kiss of betrayal?), then by pity for the life she has led (having been cursed to eternal life for having mocked Christ on the Cross). In an echo of the Devil's tempting of Eve in the Garden ("your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."), Kundry tells Parsifal "If you are a redeemer, what evil stops you, from uniting with me for my salvation?" Parsifal resists Kundry's temptations and regains the Spear from the evil Klingsor. And in Act III, where after a search of many years (reflected in the slow, weary atmosphere of Wagner's music for the act's Prelude; music that you'd never hear at the beginning of a 4 1/2 hour opera), Parsifal relocates the knights of the Holy Grail, baptizes Kundry, and uses the Spear to heal the wound in the side of Amfortas, thus winning redemption both for Kundry (who finally can experience death, and therefore rest), and Amfortas (whose wound is healed by the relic of Christ's sacrifice).
As I said, one must be careful here. Christ is never mentioned by name - the description above is the Christian interpretation. But, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has said, "The Catholic sensibility, however, going back to the patristic era and its happy use of 'the spoils of Egypt,' is inclined to embracing truth wherever it is found." And Parsifal is far from what one would describe as "the spoils of Egypt." If God is present in everything, then it's surely not hard to believe that the truth of His sacrifice is present in Parsifal as well, even if Wagner himself was confused about it.
In a letter to King Ludwig, Wagner wrote,
"Today is Good Friday again! - O, blessed day! Most deeply portentous day in the world! Day of redemption! God's suffering! Who can grasp the enormity of it? And yet, this same ineffable mystery - is it not the most familiar of mankind's secrets? God, the Creator, - he must remain totally unintelligible to the world: - God, the loving teacher, is dearly beloved, but not understood:- but the God who suffers, - His name is inscribed in our hearts in letters of fire; all the obstinacy of existence is washed away by our immense pain at seeing God suffering! The teaching which we could not comprehend, it now affects us: God is within us, - the world has been overcome! Who created it? An idle question! Who overcame it? God within our hearts, - God whom we comprehend1 in the deepest anguish of fellow-suffering!"
1(It might not be coindidental that Wagner makes a play on begreifen, to take in, and ergreifen, to grasp, which suggests Luther's translation of the first chapter of St. John's Gospel:Und das Licht scheint in der Finsternis, und die Finsternis hat's nicht ergriffen. [John 1:5])*Ultimately, writing about Parsifal is one thing. Experiencing it is another. Wagner isn't to everyone's liking, of course (Mark Twain famously said that Wagner wasn't as bad as he sounded), but to experience the beauty and emotion present in the music he composed and the poetry he wrote for Parsifal is surely worth taking a chance. Watching the Met's version on DVD last Saturday night, one can't help but be stirred by the music and moved by the lyrics. Parsifal tells the rest of the story begun in other Easter productions, making it the perfect conclusion to our pre-Easter film festival.
In the dark days that we all know lie ahead, we can look back at the words with which I began this post: "the tears of repentant sinners, that fall like holy dew today to moisten field and meadow; [will make] them fertile. Now all creatures rejoice in visible signs of the Redeemer, to whom they dedicate their prayers . . . as God, with heavenly patience and mercy, suffered for man, so mankind today in pious gratitude spares nature with gentle tread. Then all creatures give thanks, all that blooms and soon will fade, and nature now absolved from sin today enjoys its day of innocence."
Let this be our meditation for Good Friday, as we reflect on the death of Christ on the Cross. And as we think of Terri Schiavo, and Pope John Paul II, and all our other friends, loved ones, and relatives in need. Tread softly and pray unceasingly, in the days and nights to come.
*This English translation and commentary are copyright © 2001 by Derrick Everett. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See this link for more.