We speak of one section of the Gospels, that which narrates Jesus’s life from the Last Supper until his death and burial, as chronicling his “passion.” On Good Friday, the lector begins the Gospel reading with the words: “The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to John.”
Why do we call Jesus’s suffering just before his death his passion?
Generally, this is not properly understood. We tend to think that passion here refers to intense sufferings, as in “passionate suffering.” This is not wrong, but it misses a key point. Passion comes from the Latin passio meaning passiveness, non-activity, absorbing something more than actively doing anything.
The “passion” of Jesus refers to that time in his life where his meaning for us is not defined by what he was doing but rather by what was being done to him. What is being said here?
The public life and ministry of Jesus can be divided into two distinct parts: Scholars estimate that Jesus spent about three years preaching and teaching before being put to death. For most of that time—in fact, for all of it except the last day—he was very much the doer: in command, the active one, teaching, healing, performing miracles, giving counsel, eating with sinners, debating with church authorities, and generally, by activities of every sort, inviting his contemporaries into the life of God. And he was busy. He is described at times as being so pressured by people that he didn’t even have time to eat. For almost all of his public life Jesus was actively doing something.
However, from the moment he walks out of the Last Supper room and begins to pray in Gethsemane, all that activity stops. He is no longer the one who is doing things for others, but the one who is having things done to him. In the garden, they arrest him, bind his hands, lead him to the high priest, then take him to Pilate. He is beaten, humiliated, stripped of his clothes, and eventually nailed to a cross where he dies. This constitutes his “passion,” that time in his life and ministry where he ceases to be the doer and becomes the one who has things done to him.
What is so remarkable about this is that our faith teaches us that we are saved more through Jesus’s passion (his death and suffering) than through all of his activity of preaching and doing miracles. How does this work?
Allow me an illustration: Ten years ago, my sister, Helen, an Ursuline nun, died of cancer. A nun for more than thirty years, she much loved her vocation and was much loved within it. For most of those thirty years, she served as a den mother to hundreds of young women who attended an academy run by her order. She loved those young women and was for them a mother, an older sister, and a mentor. For the last twenty years of her life, after our own mother died, she also served in that same capacity for our family, organizing us and keeping us together. Through all those years she was the active one, the consummate doer, the one that others expected to take charge. She relished the role. She loved doing things for others.
Nine months before she died, cancer struck her brutally, and she spent the last months of her life bedridden. Now things needed to be done for her and to her. Doctors, nurses, her sisters in community, and others took turns taking care of her. And, like Jesus from the time of his arrest until the moment of his death, her body too was humiliated, led around by others, stripped, prodded, and stared at by curious passersby. Indeed, like Jesus, she died thirsty, with a sponge held to her lips by someone else.
This was her passion. She, the one who had spent so many years doing things for others, now had to submit to having things done to her. But—and this is the point—like Jesus, she was able in that period of her life, when she was helpless and no longer in charge, to give life and meaning to others in a deeper way than she could when she was active and doing so many things for others.
There’s a great lesson in this, not the least of which is how we view the terminally ill, the severely handicapped, and the sick. There’s a lesson too on how we might understand ourselves when we are ill, helpless, and in need of care from others.
The cross teaches us that we, like Jesus, give as much to others in our passivities as in our activities. When we are no longer in charge, when we are beaten down by whatever—humiliated, suffering, and unable even to make ourselves understood by our loved ones—then we are undergoing our own passion and, like Jesus in his passion, have in that the opportunity to give our love and ourselves to others in a very deep way.
Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is an internationally renowned speaker and spiritual writer. He is the author of many books, including the The Passion and the Cross (Franciscan Media).