As a Lenten discipline, every year during the Triduum I watch The Passion of the Christ movie (for a guide to The Passion, click here). It’s rough; I have to force myself not to hurry the narrative along, but in my heart the whole time I just want it over.
For several weeks after watching The Passion, I find myself praying the Sorrowful Mysteries something like the way I talk myself through difficulty and suffering: In less than twenty-four hours, it will all be over. Let’s just get through this, Jesus. We’re in the Garden … Thank goodness, it’s morning; you made it; less than nine hours left … OK, now we’re carrying that awful Cross. Can you make it up this ugly hill? Just hang on Jesus, we’re almost there and then only three hours left.
To me, “passion” has always been a strange word to associate with these long hours of enduring unspeakable acts of torment and agony. Passion is commonly used to denote striving for personal expression, and in this sense it is morbidly fascinating that Jesus’ suffering is said to be and truly was his passion.
The Bible mostly uses the term as out-of-control emotions and desires, passions, (Galatians 5:24). In the book of Acts we find the only biblical use of “passion” in reference to Jesus’ suffering and death: “To them he presented himself alive after his passion” (Acts 1:3). From this mustard seed of a verse sprang a beautiful theological tree in the Church on passion as specific to Jesus’ suffering and death.
Passion Is Deliberate Vulnerability
If it’s possible to enter more deeply into the mystery of passion on these terms, I was recently persuaded to do so by a friend through W. H. Vanstone, who invites us to consider passion in another, maybe more challenging, way in his classic book The Stature of Waiting:
“The word ‘passion’ does not mean … ‘pain.’ It means dependence, exposure, waiting, being no longer in control of one’s own situation, being the object of what is done … Jesus entered into the totality or extremity of passion—the situation in which there is no limit to what may be done to one, to what one may receive or suffer; and at the great climax of the story, at the moment when he is handed over in the Garden, we see him waiting, in the agony of expectancy, for whatever it is that he is to receive” (Vanstone, The Stature of Waiting).
If Jesus’ passion can possibly be more of a stumbling block of salvation (1 Corinthians 1:23), I think this does it: leaning into, “passing over” or “passing into,” an “agony of expectancy”—patience for an unknown, but deliberate, helplessness at the hands of others.
At the Last Supper table, Jesus’ hour for deliberate vulnerability has come. “And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer’” (Luke 22:15). He might have said, I have passionately desired to share this passion with you before my passion. “He first then desires to eat the typical Passover, and so to declare the mysteries of His Passion to the world” (St. Bede on Luke 22:15).
A hint of passion’s mystery came later that evening when Jesus said, “All things are now completed.” Yet wasn’t there something beyond his things and works that was necessary to the completion of Jesus’ mission: passion? He must complete his exodus (Luke 9:31); He must pass over into the totality of vulnerability in passive waiting.
His work, his doing, was finished. Only after the agony of passive waiting, from the Cross, did he victoriously proclaim, “It is finished.” His final declaration is made in the embrace of extreme passive vulnerability.
We Begin and End with Passion
But just as strikingly, so is his first. Like us, he was born into total helplessness too. He chose this passive vulnerability; He leaned into it: “[T]hough he was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
In his helplessness, some will spit on him, beat him, and pierce him to death; some will marginalize or ignore him entirely. But some will wash and anoint his battered, broken, dead body with great love and tenderness.
He waits in agony of expectation to know: What will I do with him?
What Will I Do with Him?
Most of what we consider “life” is sandwiched between two periods of inactive helplessness—birth/infancy and death. Passion as dependence straddles human life. Helplessness, then, cannot be inferior to independence.
This punctuation at both ends of my doing seems designed to teach, and even warn me, that neither the beginning nor the completion of my life depends on me. Therefore the value of my lifespan is not solely dependent on the activity, work, or ability to contribute to society upon which I place so much value.
So my passion will not necessarily be my doing. Instead, I should consider it might be the period(s) where I pass, suddenly or gradually, into a more dependent phase of life. Maybe I am waiting. Maybe I have lost my independence through disability or illness. Maybe I feel or have become what I consider useless or ineffective because I am utterly dependent and can no longer “contribute” or even care for myself.
This is passion the way Jesus teaches it: moving from activity to receptivity, temporarily or permanently. Jesus teaches us that passion seems to depend less on what we express in achieving, and more in what we express in receiving.
And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. When I allow passion to be something that is done to me rather than what I do, Jesus’ passion transforms my waiting, helplessness, and uselessness from a teeth-gritting-count-down-till-it’s-over to the currency of redemption and resurrection.
Human dignity is not diminished in vulnerability and helplessness, but accentuated in those who have nothing left to offer. Passion is a striking corrective to the “do it, fix it” mentality of our times.
In waiting, in dependence, in helplessness, I am not useless. This does not have to be some sad, unfortunate situation. By grace—only by grace—I can surrender to the stripping of my attachments and the exposure of my real and raw helplessness.
Like Jesus I can offer a waiting love that does not try to rush back into or force the action. To Jesus I can offer my presence and gentleness and mercy. And it might be my passing over into this true passion that is the most important and necessary part of my life.