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Sunrise on a field of grass

Peter at the Empty Tomb

Bach’s Easter Oratorio

Colin Fields


The gospel records of the actions of the apostle Peter during Holy Week - the enthusiasm with which he expresses his love for Jesus, his cowardice at the moment of crisis, his remorse and the eagerness with which he runs to see the empty grave – show us a human being who finds that apart from Jesus he can do nothing. Bach, in his Easter Oratorio, supplies music to help us reflect on the moment when, in the tomb, Peter contemplates Jesus’ grave clothes and realizes that Jesus’ resurrection has abolished his own fear of death. This gorgeous tenor aria is a quiet moment in the otherwise exuberant Easter Oratorio, written on a libretto by Christian Friedrich Henrici and first performed in 1725.

Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer,
Nur ein Schlummer,
Jesu, durch dein Schweißtuch sein.
Ja, das wird mich dort erfrischen
Und die Zähren meiner Pein
Von den Wangen tröstlich wischen.

English translation:

The pangs of death will be gentle for me,
Simply like slumber,
Jesu, because of your shroud.
Yes, there I will be refreshed
And the tears of my suffering
Will be consoled and wiped from my cheeks.

The nineteenth-century novelist George MacDonald goes further on this theme in his essay "Resurrection":

If Christ be risen, then is the grave of humanity itself empty. We have risen with him, and death has henceforth no dominion over us. Of every dead man and woman it may be said: He – she – is not here, but is risen and gone before us. Ever since the Lord lay down in the tomb, and behold it was but a couch whence he arose refreshed, we may say of every brother: He is not dead but sleepeth. He too is alive and shall arise from his sleep.

The way to the tomb may be hard, as it was for him; but we who look on, see the hardness and not the help; we see the suffering but not the sustaining: that is known only to the dying and God. They can tell us little of this, and nothing of the glad safety beyond.

Tenor Mark Padmore sings with the Collegium Vocale of Gent led by Phillip Herreweghe.

Detail from He Is Not Here used by permission.

Detail from painting Walter Rane,
He Is Not Here (detail)