The Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free)

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If you have seen “The Passion of the Christ” movie, you may or may not realize that the title “passion” is derived from the Passion Play that originated in Germany in the 17th century.  In the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau in 1633, the bubonic plague hit, as it had many other places after the Thirty Years War.  One in two families there suffered loss of loved ones due to this plague, and in an attempt to stop its killing effects, the citizens of Oberammergau met together and made a pledge to perform a play depicting the life, death, and resurrection of Christ every ten years.  The first Passion Play was performed in 1634, but the disease had already stopped before they ever performed it–they saw this as a miracle from God for their vow.  So without fail, the Passion Play has been performed to this day every ten years, at one point having been moved to the zero year of each decade, so that the last was performed in 2010.

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I knew of this play from a young age, having lived in Germany from the age of 10-14.  We took more than one trip to the Bavarian Alps, visiting towns such as Bertchesgaden, Garmisch, Oberammergau, and exploring beautiful castles built by the “Mad” King Ludwig (one, Neuschwanstein Castle, is the castle used in the design of the Disneyland Castle).  We were aware of the Passion Play, but were not living there at the time that it was performed, so I have yet to see this awesome production.  But living in Germany had such an impact on me in itself, that all my memories are still very vivid in my mind, and anything that sparks one of these memories stands out for me.

So it was when I ran across the song by Joni Mitchell “The Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)”. From her album Night Ride Home, it depicts, as if in scenes from a play, the story of Christ.  I became an ardent fan of Joni Mitchell in high school, and after hearing this song, wondered if she was a religious person, or even perhaps a Christian, because the lyrics of this song are so enlightened, poetic, and beautiful:

Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free)

by Joni Mitchell

Magdalene is trembling
Like a washing on a line

Trembling and gleaming
Never before was a man so kind
Never so redeeming

Enter the multitudes
In Exxon blue
In radiation rose
Ecstasy
Now you tell me
Who you gonna get to do the dirty work
When all the slaves are free?

(Who’re you gonna get)

I am up a sycamore
Looking through the leaves

A sinner of some position
Who in the world can this heart healer be
This magical physician

Enter the multitudes
In Exxon blue

In radiation rose
Misery
Now you tell me
Who you gonna get to do the dirty work
When all the slaves are free?

(Who’re you gonna get)

Enter the multitudes
The walking wounded

They come to this diver of the heart of the multitudes
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done

Oh climb down climb down he says to me
From the middle of unrest

They think his light is squandered
But he sees a stray in the wilderness
And I see how far I’ve wandered

Enter the multitudes
In Exxon blue

In radiation rose
Apathy
Now you tell me
Who you gonna get to do the dirty work
When all the slaves are free?

(Who’re you gonna get)

Enter the multitudes
The walking wounded
They come to this diver of the heart of the multitudes
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done

Oh all around the marketplace
The buzzing of the flies
The buzzing and the stinging
Divinely barren
And wickedly wise
The killer nails are ringing

Enter the multitudes
In Exxon blue
In radiation rose
Tragedy
Now you tell me
Who you gonna get to do the dirty work
When all the slaves are free?

(Who’re you gonna get)

As in a play, the story in this song is told in scenes.  In the first scene we have this visual picture drawn of Mary Magdalene overwhelmed with emotion at her encounter with this “redeeming” man.  And then, “Enter, the multitudes…”  This is a stage direction given in plays, i.e. “enter, stage left”—a very clever effect to put the listener in the role of audience member.

So as one scene closes, this personal encounter with Christ, the next scene opens with multitudes of followers dressed in colorful clothes.  This is often the case in a staged show—characters are dressed more brilliantly than in real life for that visual eye-candy.  If it were truly 2000 years ago, I’d guess most everyday people were dressed in dull colors like brown, gray, etc.  But these colors, “exon blue” and “radiation rose,” give one the sense of costumes.  I read a review of her album around the time it came out where the critic made a point of her images, claiming she was trying to make some kind of political statement (Exon oil spill).  I have no doubt that was somewhere on her mind, but it’s interesting—Exon has a very specific rich blue shade in its sign.  So I think she used these descriptions to give that picture of brilliant, bold colors.

The next scene is described by the narrator in the song, Zaccheus, “up a sycamore, looking through the leaves.”  He describes Jesus as a “heart-healer” and a “magical physician”—probable observations in the minds of those who encountered Jesus but didn’t know what to make of Him.  And in the next verse, Jesus tells him, “Climb down from the middle of unrest.”  Wow, what a statement.  Jesus taught those who followed Him, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  He promises rest to those that find Him.  This one line, so simple and understated, packs a powerful punch.  It amazes me, the depth of the gift that Joni Mitchell has, to take a story like this and take it beneath the surface in the way she does.  At the time I heard this song, I really wondered if she was a born-again Christian.  I did read in her biography that she had a religious experience of some kind while in Europe in the ’70’s.  Not that she would not be able to write this song without having a personal relationship with Christ, but this and other lines she includes in her account of the crucifixion—well, it speaks of an understanding of the scriptures that is beyond the norm.

The choruses are very interesting, each with a one-word emotion:  ecstasy, misery, apathy, tragedy.  Could these be script commands given to the actors of emotions they are to portray in each scene of the play?  Again, I love how she invites you into this narrative from the vantage point of a member of an audience.  And these multitudes she describes as the “walking wounded” who “come to this diver of the heart of the multitudes.”  Christ’s ministry was about the individual.  He could look up in a tree at a tax collector, turn to a woman grasping the hem of his mantle, or address a Roman soldier, and every time see into their hearts, know their story, cut to the quick of what made them click.  And Joni shows that in this song.

In the last scene of the narrative, when she could go for the big finish, it is surprisingly understated, yet very poignant:  people in a marketplace about their business, flies buzzing and stinging, and somewhere the echo of “nails ringing.”  The sound, or perhaps the atmosphere, is described as “divinely barren and wickedly wise.”  Divinely barren—could this allude to the Father forsaking Christ at His worst hour, or possibly the absence of Christ, the divine, from this setting because He has been arrested?  And wickedly wise—are these the ones who saw it as their mission to crucify Christ, believing themselves to be heroes in ridding the world of a charlatan, a blasphemer?  To say so little, this verse speaks volumes and is open to much interpretation.

Lastly, notice the resounding last line of each chorus—“who’re you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”  Christ came to set the captives free; He came to save, heal, and deliver.  As I see it, this line is a question posed by the narrator to the devil himself.  “What are you going to do, Satan, once Christ has defeated death, taken back the keys of the kingdom, and risen to be with His Father again?”

I love this song.  To me, a marvelous picture, not only of the passion play itself, but of what Christ’s mission was.  Here is a link where you can listen to the song yourself, which is set to the perfect musical background.  Enjoy!

 

 

3 comments on “The Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free)

  1. Brenden

    well said, its a beautiful, moving song about Jesus and his impact!

  2. Lisa Meissner

    Thanks for sharing this. Powerful song. The photo of the passion play is helpful in understanding the phrase Exxon Blue.

  3. Cheryl Martin

    Beautiful, beautiful, interpretation. Thank you.

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