The Passion of Christ (not the Movie)

Why does the story of Jesus’ passion (his suffering and death) play such a central role in the New Testament, along side his teachings and works of mercy?  What part does it play in our understanding of what it means today to be His disciple?

I wrote this essay on the Passion of Christ for another blog in 2005.  At the time, the Mel Gibson movie of the same title was somewhat popular. The focus of the essay, however, is not the movie but the actual “Passion” (i.e. suffering) of Christ himself and what it means for followers of Christ. I have edited it slightly, but left the main points intact.  I hope it is still worth reading and that it can also lay the groundwork for understanding what I mean by the phrase “Quaker Christian Radical”.  If it doesn’t sound particularly “radical” or distinctively “Quaker”, I still hope to point out those connections in future posts.

Why does the story of Jesus’ passion (his suffering and death) play such a central role in the New Testament, along side his teachings and works of mercy?  What part does it play in our understanding of what it means today to be His disciple?

The kernel of all we know outwardly about Jesus appears in the Christian Bible in four books known as “gospels”, a word that means “good news”. The stories in these books have been told and retold for two millennia. They have brought peace, joy and comfort to Christian people of all sorts and conditions. They have served to inspire and edify us, to provide us with moral and spiritual direction, and to fortify our spirits in times of distress.

Yet the “good news” in these stories is not all pleasant news by any means. The Bible is not a “feel good” book. Although the stories of Jesus speak of redemption and healing and hope and the final triumph of the love of God, they also speak of disease and death, oppression and persecution, violence and hatred. In fact, at the center of each gospel’s narrative is the extremely terrible story of the Passion of the Christ, in which an innocent and good man is arrested, tortured, and brutally executed. The gospels do provide a context for this story: They situate it between the teaching and healing that came before it and the resurrection that came after, but every one of the four gospels does give the Passion narrative a prominent place.

The gospel writers don’t shrink from frank description of the bloody death of Jesus, yet neither do they wallow in details. Facing the horror of the crucifixion was obviously important to the early Jesus movement. From other books the church created, including the Acts of the Apostles, the epistles of Paul, Peter, and John, and the Book of Revelation we can see that understanding and explaining the meaning of His suffering and death became central to those who had loved Him and to those who received His gospel after He had risen.

Christ’s cross was still seen by outsiders as a sign of defeat and humiliation. Paul wrote that it was “foolishness” to the pagan Greeks and “a stumbling block” to other Jews. But to Christians, both Jews and Greeks, this cross came to mean victory over death, a means of salvation, a literally “crucial” and necessary part of Jesus’ mission.

What does this mean to us? Does it help us or baffle us? Inspire us or embarrass us? How, if at all, do we remember and honor it? (In speaking of “us” I address myself to anyone who may read this article, but especially to other Christians and even more especially to that particular circle of Christians who are called Quakers: the members of the Religious Society of Friends). The example of some Christians, in response to the Passion, has been to concentrate attention on it, to meditate on it and even visualize it – wounds and all – in gruesome detail. A great many mystics have pursued such visions or been pursued by them. Christian art from mediaeval times down to the 2004 movie by Mel Gibson has often sought to make Christ’s suffering extremely vivid to us.

No doubt there are many souls who have been moved by such images to greater devotion and faith. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily pious or virtuous to dwell in imagination on scenes such as the scourging and crucifixion. Morbid preoccupation with them could easily lead us to self-punishing guilt or to self-righteous scapegoating of others instead of to the joy and freedom that Christ offers to us. If it was the only way to be thankful for His sacrifice, and show our respect and awe, then we would owe Him no less than to meditate on the His suffering day and night. But it is not the only way.

What is the alternative? I believe that the answer must begin with a recognition that Jesus suffered as a human being, notwithstanding that He is also the Son of God. His was a human suffering and a human death, akin to all other suffering and death including our own. His vulnerability was one of the ways in which He voluntarily became like us. Therefore whatever attitude we take toward His suffering should be of a piece with our attitude to any person’s suffering. He is a fellow-sufferer with those who have AIDS, those who have cancer, those who are blind, maimed, disfigured, or mad, those who are victims of violence or persecution, those who are wounded or killed in the act of helping or rescuing others. In Christ and through Christ we may see all those fellow-sufferers. In them and through them we may also come to see Him.

It might be objected that Christ’s suffering differs from other suffering in that His was voluntary and most other suffering is not. But we need to be clear about what we mean by “voluntary”. Christ was not and is not a masochist or suicide. He did not inflict suffering upon himself nor kill himself. He didn’t scourge or abuse his own body, and He certainly didn’t crucify Himself. These evils were done to Him by others. They were the world’s answer to His call for repentance and healing and His announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God. What was “voluntary” about His suffering is that He exposed Himself to it by coming into the world to live among us in perfect faithfulness to God despite all consequences. It was in this sense that he “laid down His life for us”. His gift to us was His love, and the cost of this gift was His death. Of course, if we are conscious that He paid this price, we ought properly to be full of gratitude and awe. As John’s gospel says “He was in the world and the world was made by Him but the world did not know him. He came unto His own and His own received Him not.”

From this understanding of what Christ did for us flows an understanding of what His disciples and Friends should do. In order to imitate Christ, we shall not go in search of ways to suffer any more than He did. Suffering may come to us, as it came to Him, and we will try to be ready to meet it when it does. But if it comes, let it be while we are living and acting as He taught us and is still teaching us to do. Let it be as we are doing the deeds of compassion, mercy and justice, loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, caring for the sick, speaking the truth, welcoming the stranger, giving of ourselves in service, and giving thanks always to God for His blessings. We have no need as Christians to invite suffering, and indeed we do well to avoid it when we can, just as we avoid causing others to suffer. We can even imitate Jesus in praying that “if it be possible, let this cup pass…”. But neither do we live in mortal dread of pain or suffering. If Christ by his death has truly conquered death for us, then the fear of death is not able to rule over our spirits. It cannot deter us from living as we believe that God would have us live nor from treating others as we believe God would have us treat them.

For me, this way of thinking about what Christ has done helps to clear up some otherwise very vexing questions. For example, certain Biblical passages seem to suggest that in suffering and dying Christ paid a penalty for our sins and freed us from having to pay it ourselves. On its face, this would seem to suggest a very odd picture of God’s justice, as if He insists that sin be punished, but is willing to let the punishment be borne by an innocent man. But in my view, the point of these passages is just to drive home Christ’s willingness to share our condition, not to present a literal explanation of why it was necessary. We may speak metaphorically of a firefighter who “gives his life” to save others. And if the fire was caused by criminal activity the firefighter could even be said to have “paid” for someone else’s arson. But we understand very well that the real reason the firefighter rushed into the fire is that that was what had to be done in order to extinguish it and rescue the victims. Christ is very much like the firefighter in that He “voluntarily” accepted the danger of death in order to save life – but His purpose and aim was and is to save life, not to die.