Meditating on the Passion of Christ

The Passionists believe the passion of Christ should always be in our hearts. We should keep it always in mind. St. Vincent Strambi in our previous blog called the passion of Jesus  a “ book of life, it teaches the way to live and communicates life. The one who reads this book day and night is blessed.”

How can we read such a book? Three questions help open the book of the Passion of Jesus for us:

What happened?

Who did it happen to?        

Why did it happen to him? 

If you asked anyone at the time of Jesus what happened when someone was crucified, they would tell you immediately. Everyone in the Roman world knew what crucifixion was. Someone was arrested, imprisoned and judged. If you were found guilty of a major crime and not a Roman citizen, you could be scourged and then crucified publicly, often dying painfully hanging there for days.

The Romans used scourging and crucifixion as a deterrent, a warning. They made sure everybody knew about it. They deliberately publicized it. Those to be crucified were marched through the streets to a public place of execution. In Jerusalem the place of execution where Jesus was crucified was right outside the city gates on a main road. It took place on a raised spot of ground the shape of a skull, Calvary. 

People going in and out of the city had to see it. They were meant to see it. The crown of thorns the soldiers put on Jesus was an added touch: Don’t try to be a king here.

Crucifixion was abolished in the Roman Empire in 337 by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, but even before some Romans were critical of the practice. The Roman orator Cicero called it “ a most cruel and disgusting punishment” and he suggested  “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s presence, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears”. (Verrine Orations 2) In polite society, art and Roman literature at the time of Jesus crucifixion is hardly mentioned. 

We’re not acquainted with crucifixion today as the people of Jesus’ time were. Today people may know it from Mel Gibson’s popular film “The Passion of the Christ”, which explores the passion of Jesus in grim visual detail. Gibson has none of Cicero’s qualms about crucifixion. He shows what happened, but doesn’t answer those two other questions much, if at all. Who is this? And why was he crucified?

Bill O’Reilly’s recent book “Killing Jesus ”  (2017) also looks at the facts of the crucifixion of Jesus but doesn’t dwell on them as Gibson does. Like other reporters, O’Reilly is interested in the facts. Get the facts, but also find a scoop, something sensational, that might surprise people by your investigation.

Facts are important in our world. We’re living in the period of the Enlightenment that began in the16th century, when science told us to look for facts.  But facts aren’t the only thing. Meditation on the passion of Jesus goes beyond the facts.

Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, our primary sources for the story of the passion of Jesus, certainly knew the facts of his crucifixion and death. Their audience also knew what happened then. But the gospel writers and those they wrote for were also interested in those other questions. “Who did this happen to?”  And “Why did it happen to him”?

The gospel accounts are not simply same day reports of what happened. They were formed over a period of time involving three levels of development. The first level occurred when Jesus was arrested, judged, crucified, died and was buried.

The second level took place in the decades that followed the resurrection of Jesus, when his followers questioned, reflected and preached on why this took place. This level can be seen, for example, in the story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel ( Lk 24:13-35) and in the Letters of St. Paul.

The third level occurred in the last decades of the 1st century when the gospel writers wrote for a particular Christian community of their own time and place . They took into account the life and ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and also the questions, reflections and preaching that followed. They wrote, finally, for  people of their day, to strengthen them in their faith. Commentators today, using modern biblical scholarship, are interested especially in this final level of gospel formation. 

The Second Vatican Council urged Catholics to read, reflect and pray on the scriptures using these new tools.The four gospels, even the three synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke that appear so similar, have their own distinct voice. Instead of harmonizing the accounts, we can learn from their differences.

“Each of the gospels revolves around the crucifixion of Jesus,” Fr. Donald Senior, a Passionist scriptural scholar, notes in his book “The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew,” (Collegeville, MN, 1985) Their interest “was not simply in the dramatic historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth was executed by crucifixion. Rather, the evangelists sought the meaning of all this, not only for Jesus’ life, but for all human life. How could this happen? And what purpose might it have? These were the questions that drew Christians to Jesus’ death. Discovering coherence in the sufferings of Jesus might yield the meaning of suffering in their own lives.” ( p 8)

Each gospel writer tells the story of the passion of Jesus in his own distinct way for his own Christian community, and for all the world.

“When we speak of Christ’s passion,” Fr. Senior continues, ‘we refer to the suffering and death he endured. But “passion” has other connotations in English. It can mean intense emotion, feeling, even commitment. People can do things “with passion.”

Both of these meanings are present when we say Jesus “took up his cross.”

The Second Vatican Council, besides approving current biblical scholarship,   directed that the treasures of the scriptures be available more widely in our liturgy. We now have, in a lectionary for Sundays and weekdays, an extensive yearly exposure to the gospels and others scriptures. Daily reading of the scriptures for us today is not only a way to grow in faith but also a way to “keep his passion in mind.” 

The gospels, which “revolve around the crucifixion,” are also daily meditations on the passion of Jesus, because the mystery of the cross falls on every part of them, from his birth, to his ministry of healing and teaching, to time he is arrested and condemned to death. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Herod haunts his birth, killing infants in Bethlehem, John the Baptist is arrested after his baptism, leaders of the people oppose him as he teaches and heals. Signs of what awaits Jesus appear even before he’s seized and put to death. The same ominous pattern is there in all the other gospels. 

For this reason, as we read from Matthew and Luke in the Christmas season and from Mark from the feast of his Baptism by John till Ash Wednesday beginning Lent,  we keep his passion in mind. As we read in Lent from Matthew and then from John from the 4th week of Lent till Holy Week, we are reading the book of his cross.

We are best prepared to meditate on the passion narrative itself by meditating on the entire gospel along with the rest of the scriptures. Jesus, in fact, told his disciples at Emmaus they all speak of him.

The scriptures are the best place to learn what happened, who did it happen to, and why did it happen to him. They help us keep his passion in mind.

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