Passivity and Suffering in the Passion of Christ

(See follow-on related post On passivity, mood and free will in Christian regeneration: With a little help from Glen Miller and Little Richard).

To focus on the physical suffering of our Lord is secondary to a much deeper meditation on His spiritual suffering. How, though, do you talk for five minutes, never mind a half an hour or more about such an intangible unearthly thing as spiritual suffering? Isn’t it much easier, and more experiential, to go the more palpable route by describing how Jesus’ body was broken for ”you.” For Jesus did indeed say, “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).

What is the Lord asking us to remember – on Good Friday? The graphics; the whipping, the flaying of skin and flesh, the blows with rods and fists, the one-inch razor sharp thorns (no, not three-inch ones)? Many a sermon has taken that emotive route, with great effect; “Jesus did all that for me.” The question is whether that route really gets to the root of Christ’s Passion? I suggest we are led astray by the term “passion.” In normal English usage, “passion” means “strong emotion” of short duration. Armed with this – as we shall see – faulty understanding of meaning of the term ‘The Passion,” the preacher may ask the congregation to try and feel some of the emotions Christ felt hanging on the cross. It’s the sort of meditation common in the Roman Catholic “Stations of the Cross.”

The heart of the “Passion” lies in its historical (etymological) meaning. “Passion” comes from the Latin root passio “to render.” So when we suffer, we have to submit to causes that deprive us of our freedom or well-being.

When I was at the 1993 Congress of Philosophy in Moscow, where I presented a paper, I attended a session where the French philosopher,Paul Ricoeur, “one of the most distinguished philosophers of the twentieth century,” (Stanford Encyclopedia) spoke on “suffering.” He spoke in English. I noticed, after he had used the word “suffering” several times, that his context nothing to to do with the English meaning of “suffering,” namely, extreme distress or pain. I studied the mesmerised faces of the audience. It seemed to me that even if he had talked backwards, they would’ve accepted it as Gospel. Hopefully the backward flip that I have done with my prospective sermon has faired a little better.

As I had some familiarity with Ricoeur’s philosophy, I was pretty sure that his “suffering” had nothing to do with extreme mental or physical pain but rather with one of his important philosophical themes, namelypassivity in actionSee END NOTE1). At question time, I asked him what he meant by “suffering.” The problem was, I said, that in French there exists the two words “subir” and “souffrir,” which originate from the same etymological root. “Souffrir” means “suffering”(extreme pain), while “subir” has the meaning, as in the King James Bible Version, of “suffer little children to come unto me,” (Mark 10:13), that is, let, or allow, them to come to me, or don’t take in action that will prevent them coming to me. So, when Ricoeur used the word “suffering,” he was thinking “subir” (passivity). And what was Ricoeur’s response? He meant “subir” (passivity) not “suffering.” He had committed a common error in French-English, English-French translation called “faux amis”(false friends). (For an example of a Yiddish-Hebrew “false friend” see When is a Hebrew youth not a Yiddishe fool?

To return to the Passion of Christ; its main meaning is the French “subir” – passivity, submission, undergo, be subjected to.

There are different degrees of passivity. For the Christian, the highest degree is when Jesus had reached his lowest point – in the garden of Gethsemane: “falling with his face to the ground, he prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will’” (Matthew, 26:39). This leads on to he more evident events in his Passion.

What kind of suffering (passivity) must it have taken to submit to not only the brutal onslaught of men but to the crushing anguish of being torn from the bosom of his Father. How does one begin to grapple with such a mysterium tremendum? (See Rudolph Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy”). Human wisdom is useless. Understanding has to be granted from above, as does everything that is the Gospel is granted from above. To see even darkly into this holy “mystery,” one has to have the same vantage point as Christ; looking from above. He always was from above; we, if he has drawn us to him, has also drawn us up above, into heavenly places. We’re seated there now, yet still suffering in this world. Every Christian knows when he is suffering, but few realise they’re doing so in heavenly places; which makes all the difference to one’s attitude to towards that suffering.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:3-10).

A very important point. Just because Christ is passive in his Passion, this does not mean that he is helpless. Not at all; He is deeply involved. The deepest aspect of this involvement is his voluntary emptying of Himself (Philippians 2:5-10).

Scripture (the words) is not the revelation itself. “Revelation”is when the Holy Spirit of God reveals to you the meaning of the words. This meaning is far deeper than the linguistic meaning. The Passion begins more or less when Jesus is led “from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters (John 18:28) and ends in his Death with, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30). The Passion is one of those moments, but of course, a pivotal one.

I ask the question again: What is Jesus really asking us to remember? After all, there were thousands that suffered a more barbarous and excruciating death. It is this: He suffered the full wrath of His Father. All the horror of sin was concentrated in those few hours. But worse; He was also cut off from the Father. To understand some of this requires to be borne on high by Christ, but first we have to be born again. Only then will I be able to see what the world or no psychology can see.

“It is finished.”

Now “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you (the Father), the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent”(John 17:1-3).

1“Ricoeur’s account of the way in which narrative represents the human world of acting (and, in its passive mode, suffering)” “Asserting Personal Capacities and Pleading for Mutual Recognition

Kluge Prize Winner 2004 – Paul Ricoeur Acceptance speech of Paul Ricoeur – December 2004

“I identify myself by my capacities, by what I can do. The individual designates himself as a capable human being—and, we must add, as a suffering human being, to underscore the vulnerability of the human condition.”