Today’s Gospel reading is St. John’s account of the Passion. The modern vernacular typically renders ‘passion’ as “a strong desire” or “barely controllable emotion.” We tend to think a person is passionate about something (or someone) if they think about it all the time, devote significant time to pursuing it, or cannot speak about it without sounding excited or anxious. Passion borders on obsession, or so the idea usually goes in common parlance. This is certainly a sad state of affairs, if for no other reason than it obscures the meaning behind the words describing - to the extent words are able - the suffering of Jesus Christ.
Passion comes to us from the Latin passio, from pati, which means ‘to suffer’. To suffer is to be acted upon by an outside agent. Think for a moment about where we got our word ‘compassion’, one that is often used in the proper historical context, which to suffer alongside. It is a valued trait in our day, and we are indeed encouraged by some of the powers that be to have ‘compassion’ for various things or people. Sometimes this encouragement comes at the tip of the sword. Yet, the roots underlying passion remain safely obscured from any connection to Jesus.
The great irony here is that without the passion of Christ, we would not have any true paradigm of compassion. It would remain an abstraction, like a geometry theorem with no numbers given to measure or quantify. The reason is that we see in Jesus a truly innocent man brutally killed and mocked, in front of His mother and friends. We see the gravest injustice. We are compassionate because we place ourselves in the sandals of Jesus, albeit for a microsecond, and shudder at the thought of being so treated. And for what? For loving people. For healing the sick. For bringing a message of salvation and God’s Kingdom. In the case of Jesus, we know that He deserved not even one cross look from a Roman soldier, let alone a gnarled fist driving into His jaw.
Jesus brings suffering - passion - to the most brutally cold, concrete reality. It smacks us in the face, even as we read the account so many years after the fact. Most people cannot read about Christ’s Passion and not feel anything. Perhaps it is shock. Maybe revulsion. Maybe some feeling of historical triumphalism, where the smugness of ‘us moderns not being like those ancient barbarians’ creeps into the fold. Surely we are not as brutal as the Romans, are we? We can revisit that another day. Reading through St. John we place ourselves with and alongside Jesus and it feels...terrible.
So, in a peculiar way, our reading of Christ’s Passion brings about compassion in us. As Christians, we should embrace this as much as we can. The reason Christ suffered was for us. That terribly uncomfortable feeling arises from our conscience, that aboriginal vicar of the soul, subtly reminding us that our sins placed Jesus on the whipping post and the Cross. We feel for the innocent victim that we are responsible for victimizing. Alas, the fruit of our transgressions has yielded the crown of thorns embedded into Jesus’ skull. The contradiction of our rebellion comes into the hazy field of vision.
It was not merely the physical Passion that Christ endured for us. He suffers emotionally Abandoned by almost all of His friends and family members. Mocked and derided by His countrymen. Tormented by those to which He had done so much good. Killed as an enemy of Israel and Rome. Knowing that He could have stopped it any time and taken the swiftest vengeance on his torturers.
The Cross was an instrument of torture invented by rational creatures that had no business doing so. The entire disordered scene inflicts nausea because we know that it need not have been so. Things should have been different. The world should not be such a place where crucifixions happen. It ought not to be a place where the innocent suffer. It should not be a place where children are sick, where people are murdered or slandered. Yet, all of these injustices have their root in rebellion. The innocent Passion of Christ lays a divine axe to that root. In His Passion, He hacks to pieces death and decay. He bears our iniquity, as the ancient prophet says. By His stripes - by His Passion - we are healed. Glory to God.