When I was in junior high, I carpooled everyday to school with my best friends who lived across the street. Their father, Paul, was a fan of acoustic singer-songwriters of the 70’s and 80’s, and when we rode with him, we were forced to listen to “his music.”
My normal posture was to slump down in the back seat, roll my eyes and make fun of Paul’s music just out of sight of the rearview mirror. I can remember one day he pushed beyond our immaturity and said, “Listen to the story of this one, guys,” and turned up the volume. Something about what I heard grabbed me. Likely, it was the Holy Spirit calling my rebellious soul to attention to hear the narrative of Don Francisco’s “He’s Alive.”
By my senior year, faith in Jesus had become my own. I began to change my musical diet from Grunge and Gangsta rap to the Worship music I was learning to play at church. The band Third Day had two songs that completely wrecked me early on. “Take The Pain” allowed me to identify with Peter’s denial and forgiveness, and “Thief” helped me digest the words, “Today you will live with Me in paradise.” Each of these works caused me to experience Jesus in a unique and profound way.
Perhaps those early encounters with storyteller songs was in my subconscious in an Easter planning meeting one morning in January, 2012 . As the worship arts team brainstormed creative elements, service flow and song options, a common thread emerged among the choices of Easter and resurrection songs. Each of them proclaimed the truth in past tense, the tone being 2000-ish years ago, this happened. Though our list of options included some of my most beloved worship songs and hymns, an angst rose up in me.
I remember saying to the team, “Guys, imagine the weight of this week! Think about what it must have been like to walk with Jesus, to have the Son Of God wash your feet, to hear people praise Him one Sunday, and the same ones crucify him a week later! How can we let our people feel, hear, see, and taste it?
Is there some way we could experience Easter in present tense, rather than past tense?
Later, I put myself in the shoes of one of the twelve, one who knew Jesus in an intimate way, one of those who was with Him through it all. I began to sing the beginning lyrics to Passion Song into my iPhone. “I was with Him when He rode into town…”
The next morning, I brought my ideas to my co-worker, Tyler Ellison, who latched on to the concept right away. We studied the events of Holy Week together and consulted our Pastor Emeritus (and former seminary professor) Gene Getz about the Biblical and historical narrative from a theologian’s perspective. After meditating on all that occurred during Holy Week, we wrote more of the verses and melody, and I finished the bridge that night.
Passion Song tells the story in first-person perspective. Each verse describes the tactile experience of John the Beloved, and gives a glimpse into his thoughts and memories. Each chorus tells us how John felt and shares a soulful cry of deepest emotion.
He begins describing the triumphant entry, Jesus riding on a donkey’s colt, and in the flashback tells that these people who seemed full of Joy were masquerading. In the end, each smile of “Hosanna” was turned to the scorn of “Crucify Him.” It’s possible John realized that Zechariah 9:9 was being fulfilled in his midst, and he felt the nervousness and anxiety of what it meant.
John then takes us to the upper room of the Last Supper, As he tastes the bread and the wine, he flashes back to Christ’s declaration in John 15, “I am the Vine.” John takes us up Golgotha, where we see Christ crucified and hear the mockers taunt our Savior. John shares his heartbreak when he hears his dearest friend cry out, “It is finished” and mourns the deepest loss.
Writing the bridge was like creating a flashback. Tyler and I wanted it to feel like those moments in TV dramas where all the scenes of the past mix up in the character’s mind. John remembers Jesus crying out in the Garden, the personal anguish of seeing Jesus’ body pierced and the chaos of the ground shaking.
John finishes the story, telling us of the empty tomb. We join him with tears of joy as he hears the news that the Angel appeared and announces the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Fear and sorrow turn to joy in the exclamation “He is risen!”
When Tyler and I first shared Passion Song with the arts staff at our church, it was well-received, but with a series of great questions. Easter is (and should be) about the joy of the resurrection. Our services always included bright light, spring flowers, pastel colors, and of course all were dressed in their Easter Sunday best. Is the song too solemn? Too dark? Too raw for what was always “Happy Day?” Where do we place a song like this in a service? We have encounters with God and His people through our worship songs, but what do we do with a storyteller song told in first person? How do we make space?
In the end, the team gave storytelling a chance. We found that taking some time to hear the eyewitness account and feel the raw emotions made it all more tangible. The “I-saw-this-happen” song found its place in our service… and after we saw, heard, tasted, and felt with John, we all experienced a renewed sense of awe and wonder. He IS risen. He is risen indeed.
Below are some examples of how others have made space for the unique telling of Passion Song during Holy Week in some creative ways.
We used Passion Song during a corporate participation in “Flowering of the Cross.” Each congregation member received a flower to put on a rugged cross filled with barbed wire. By the time we got to the 3rd verse, the cross was covered in bright flowers and everyone celebrated with “Oh fear not, He has risen.” Powerful moment ushered by a powerful song!
– Christopher Rixon – Gracehill Church
For our Maundy Thursday service we only sang ¾ of the song. We left Jesus in the grave. Then on Sunday, we did the whole song again with an environmental projection video that mirrored the story. This time we ended the song and went right into celebration with the song “Happy Day.” It’s such a great, straightforward story song that set the stage for an Easter celebration experience. It really runs the gamut of emotion.
– Jon Web Life.Church Overland Park Kansas
I sang “Passion Song” with only acoustic piano for our Good Friday Service after our pastor’s sermon and right before the benediction. Placing “Passion Song” at the end set the mood for Easter Sunday. It was a solemn moment. Everyone in the service felt the pain of the disciples who witnessed Jesus’ coronation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Many people don’t know how to grieve Christ’s death and and betrayal. And I believe Passion Song gives people permission to identify with the pain of the disciples as they witness their Messiah and Savior die and rise again…it also gives the listener permission to feel their own anguish and excitement concerning the events of the Passion.
– Andrew Russell – Grace Bible Church in Dallas, TX
Most of the time in our worship, we do songs that are fast, upbeat with a gospel flare that keep people involved and participating. We did something different with Passion Song. We actually set up the song, pointing out that it was different but that music is a powerful tool to help convey and remember story. We asked our people to sit down and really think and re-live the moments of Holy Week. Because it was Palm Sunday we tied Passion Song right into a congregational favorite, Israel Houghton’s “Hosanna.”
– Elmer Canas Cornerstone Nashville
Passion Song was perfect for our Good Friday service. I was looking for a song that would cause people to stop, listen and think. I simply led the song in a stripped-down acoustic service, and the reaction was incredible. People loved the song, but more than that, they loved the environment it helped create for them to truly focus on Jesus, and what He did for us on the cross. The story the song tells, the simplicity of the music, the tenderness of the vocal, and the journey it takes you on make this an incredible song to use during a Holy Week service. If you’re looking for a song that you can build a service around, this is it.
– James Worsham Legacy Church in Plano, Texas
In our contemporary service, our worship team always does one special-music piece during the Offering, and that’s how we used Passion Song. What I love about that song is the way it tells the story of Holy Week from the perspective of eye-witnesses, allowing the congregation hearing or singing the song to enter into the Gospel story as if we are experiencing it. It makes it come alive in a very personal way.
– Luke Hyder Cascade View Presbyterian Church in Everett, WA.
The first time we played Passion Song was during the offertory on Palm Sunday during our contemporary service. It was played as a special song to be sung over the church body. The room was filled with emotion and a quiet sense of reverence for our Lord and thinking through what this experience may have been like for Him. It was so impactful that we were asked by our pastor and many members of the church family to repeat the song on Easter, which we did. Seeing Holy Week from John’s perspective was a new and really special way to look at it. I think, as sinners and those who do not compare to Jesus, it can be easier, at times, to identify with other sinners. Others who walked with Jesus and who were human and broken- just like we all are. To see Jesus, His life and His sacrifice during the last few days from the perspective of a close friend, it’s simply beautiful.
– Rebekah El Maddux Church of the Apostles (Anglican)
At Park Springs, we don’t normally do “special music,” however I used Passion Song two years in a row at our Tenebrae Services. Passion song was the final song of the night just before we would snuff the final candle. We used it as a reflective song, really stripped down with acoustic, upright bass, and keys. It makes the story come alive and feel real. It vividly portrays a story that Christians easily grow numb to, waking up our hearts.
– Amanda Chapman – Park Springs Bible