One of the highlights of Holy Week, is the hearing and experiencing of the Passion Narrative. Whether done in English or Latin, this “drama” brings the story of Christ’s Passion and death to life in the most unique way.
The history of the dramatic reading of Christ’s Passion goes back to at least the 4th century. This is described in detail by the Spanish nun Egeria, who documented her travels to the Holy Land.
By the 5th century, Pope Leo the Great specified that the Gospel of Matthew should be used on Palm Sunday while that of John was always reserved for Good Friday. In ensuing years, the other Gospels were added throughout the week, but the Gospel of John remained as the one for Good Friday. As early as the 8th century, the Passion narratives began to be intoned rather than spoken. There was a narrator, called the Chronista. He usually recited on a fixed pitch. The part of Jesus was always done by a deep voice, known as the Christus. All the other “characters” are done by a high voice, and they were referred to as the Synagoga, or Jewish leaders. Of course these roles included Pilate, Peter, and other characters as well. By the 12th century, there were specific tunes assigned to each of the three voices; most often chanted by priests and deacons.
One of the most poignant moments in the Good Friday Narrative occurs at the death of Jesus, when the narrator ends the section by chanting John 19:36, “They shall look upon him whom they have pierced.” He then changes tunes to what is known as the Planctus or “Weeping Tone,” as he describes Joseph of Arimathea, along with Nicodemus, taking the body of Jesus and preparing it for burial in the custom of the Jews, with costly spices and linen cloths. All the sorrow and tenderness with which they must have carried out their deed of love is summed up in this tone.