Passionate about the Passion
What was at the heart of Jesus' suffering and death?
For centuries, drama and good storytelling have had the power to grab our imaginations and move us in our innermost hearts. Even today, a gripping novel or a powerful movie can stay with us for a long time after we have finished it-and the very best have had so strong an impact that they have changed the way we think and act.
Of all the great stories that have been written, and of all the great dramas that have been acted out on stage or in a movie, none is more powerful than the story of Jesus Christ-especially his passion, death, and resurrection. Nothing can compare to this story in its ability to fill us with sadness as we see Jesus treated so harshly-or with excitement and hope as we see in his resurrection the defeat of sin and death and the promise of new life for all of us.
How many times, after meditating on the passion of the Lord, have you felt a lump in your throat, or even been moved to tears? How many times has some movie about Jesus affected you deeply and given you an overflowing sense of God's love?
Why do we react this way? Because the Holy Spirit loves to bring the gospel to life for us, and he will use stories, movies, and drama to do that. We also react this way because deep down we recognize that the passion of Jesus is at the very core of our lives and of our faith. Deep down, in that place where the Spirit moves the most intimately, we see that God chose to save us and bring us back to him by giving up his only Son for us. It's plausible that God could have chosen some other way to redeem us, but he chose the cross in part because of the way this gripping event dramatizes how deeply he loves us.
During this season of Lent, we want to encourage you to read the passion and ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten your mind as you meditate on the story. Ask the Spirit to give you divine insight and revelation that touches your heart as much as it teaches your mind. Tell him you want to experience a new depth of God's love as you contemplate once more the story behind St. John's famous words: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16).
A Mystery of Hatred and Fear. There are many different ways we can read the passion stories in the gospels, but we want to look at these stories from two dimensions. We want to focus on the natural, psychological elements at play in the passion. But we also want to point out some of the more spiritual and theological aspects that are visible just beneath the surface of these gospel stories.
As we read the gospels, we can see that Jesus was put to death because his message was too radical for the religious and political leaders of Israel. It seemed that Jesus repeatedly alienated them with his words and his actions. He associated with Samaritans, he ate with tax collectors, and he reached out to prostitutes. While the leaders dismissed these people as undesirables and outcasts, Jesus saw them as beloved but wounded children of God-people who needed to be embraced, healed, and brought to new life.
Not only did Jesus scandalize these leaders by the company he kept, he went so far as to openly confront their hypocrisy. He accused them of appearing clean on the outside while allowing self-centeredness to reign on the inside (Matthew 23:25). He challenged them to stop building themselves up and to practice what they preached (23:3-7). He even asked them, "How can you escape being sentenced to hell?" (23:33). And as you might expect, the more boldly Jesus challenged them, the more intensely they hated him.
But Jesus did even more than challenge the Jewish leaders on a personal level. He challenged the way they were interpreting and teaching the laws of Moses. He defended his disciples when they were accused of breaking the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). He even "broke" the sabbath himself by healing the sick at synagogue gatherings (12:9-14; Luke 13:10-17). He openly forgave the sins of an adulterous woman who, according to a strict interpretation of the law, should have been put to death (John 8:2-11). He even appeared to commit blasphemy when he told a paralyzed man that his sins had been forgiven (Mark 2:1-12).
Finally, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Jewish rulers were pushed to their limit. They felt that had no choice but to eliminate this troublesome rabbi. "If we let him go on like this," they reasoned, "everyone will believe in him and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation" (John 11:48). And so Caiaphas, the high priest, decided-both prophetically and ironically-that it was better "to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed" (11:50). And, as we all know, the rest is history.
A Mystery of Salvation. And yet, while all this was going on between Jesus and Israel's leaders, another conflict was raging-one that extended beyond the confines of one group or another and reached right up to the throne of God. Just about everyone who has read the passion can identify the injustice and the cruelty that Jesus experienced. We wonder why so many everyday Jews turned on him and why Pilate caved into the demands of the Sanhedrin. We wonder how anyone could justify killing a man who had dedicated his life to preaching peace, love, and mercy.
While nearly everyone can condemn such injustice, it takes another set of eyes to perceive the salvation that flowed out of it. Only through the eyes of faith can we see the cross as God's perfect plan of salvation. Only as we ask the Spirit to open our hearts will we see in the passion the battle between light and darkness-and the victory that Jesus won for each of us.
As we meditate on the passion, we will come to see how much Jesus gave for our sake-both spiritually and physically. On the surface, it appeared that a few men devised an evil plan to put Jesus to death. And to a certain extent, this is correct. But on this deeper level of faith, we can see how Satan entered Judas and convinced him to betray Jesus to the authorities. And if we look at other aspects of the passion, such as Peter's denial and the intense hatred of his enemies, we will also be able to see the devil's influence behind these human actions and decisions. In all of these strategies, Satan's goal was to isolate Jesus and weaken him to the point where he would turn away from God's plan and fall into sin himself. Satan knew that if he could get Jesus to deny his Father just once, our salvation would be jeopardized, and his hold over us would go unthreatened.
Praying the Passion. As we delve into the mystery of the passion this Lent, let's imagine ourselves with Jesus during the final hours of his life. The closer we can get to the reality of these events, the more we will appreciate what Jesus did for us.
How can you get the most out of pondering the passion? By asking the Holy Spirit to help you see the spiritual battle that was raging even as the political and personality struggles were taking place. Ask him to show you how the lies of Satan, the power of sin, and the darkness in the human heart all played a part in Jesus' suffering and death. Even more importantly, ask him to show you the perfection of God's plan to save us and redeem us from these influences. Finally, ask the Spirit to show you how you can apply the message of the passion to your life.
Scripture tells us about a woman who-a short time before Jesus' final Passover-anointed him with precious and costly perfume (Mark 14:1-9). Let's take her act of love and devotion as a model for the way we can respond to Jesus this Lent. As responsible stewards, we can always ask how we can best use the "costly ointment" of our lives for good: to serve the poor, to help educate others, or to take care of our families. These are always good questions to ask. But love never calculates. It never relies only on good reason. Its one desire is to give as much as it can for the beloved and then ask, "How can I give more?" This woman loved Jesus so much that she poured out-even "wasted"-the most valuable thing she owned on him.
Logic tells us to be prudent and economical. Love tells us to "waste" ourselves for those we love. Of course we should be logical and use the gift of reason that God gave us. But when it comes to our relationship with Jesus, logic needs to take a back seat to love.
As you begin this Lenten season, ask the Holy Spirit to draw you deeper into the heart of Christ-every time you receive the Eucharist, every time you pray, and every time you read the passion. Let the mystery of Jesus' death sink into your heart. As the beauty and power of this great drama pierces you, give Jesus the best gift you can give: Pour out your life on him in love, adoration, and obedience.