The Passion of Jesus


The renowned spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, shares how he once went to a hospital to visit a man dying of cancer. The man was still relatively young and had been a very hardworking and generative person. He was the father of a family and provided well for them. He was the chief executive officer in a large company and took good care of both the company and his employees. Moreover he was involved in many other organizations, including his church, and, because of his leadership abilities, was often the one in charge. But now, this once-so-active man, this person who was so used to being in control of things, was lying on a hospital bed, dying, unable to take care of even his most basic needs.

As Nouwen approached the bed, the man took his hand. It’s significant to note the particular frustration he expressed: “Father, you have to help me! I’m dying, and I am trying to make peace with that, but there is something else too: You know me, I have always been in charge – I took care of my family. I took care of the company. I took care of the church. I took care of things! Now I am lying here, on this bed and I can’t even take care of myself. I can’t even go to the bathroom! Dying is one thing, but this is another! I’m helpless! I can’t do anything anymore!”

Despite his exceptional pastoral skills, Nouwen, like any of us in a similar situation, was left rather helpless in the face of this man’s plea. The man was undergoing an agonizing passivity. He was now a patient. He had once been active, the one in charge; and now, like Jesus in the hours leading up to his death, he was reduced being a patient, one who is ministered to by others. Nouwen, for his part, tried to help the man see the connection between what he was undergoing and what Jesus endured in his passion, especially how this time of helplessness, diminishment, and passivity is meant to be a time where we can give something deeper to those around us.

Among other things, Nouwen read the Passion narratives of the Gospels aloud to him because what this man was enduring parallels very clearly what Jesus endured in the hours leading up to his death, a time we Christians entitle, “the Passion of Jesus”. What exactly was the Passion of Jesus?

As Christians, we believe that Jesus gave us both his life and his death. Too often, however, we do not distinguish between the two, though we should: Jesus gave his life for us in one way, through his activity; he gave his death for us in another way, through his passivity, his passion.

It is easy to misunderstand what the Gospels mean by the Passion of Jesus. When we use the word passion in relationship to Jesus’ suffering we spontaneously connect it to the idea of passion as pain, the pain of the crucifixion, of scourging, of whips, of nails in his hands, of humiliation before the crowd. The Passion of Jesus does refer to these, but the word asks for a different focus here. The English word passion takes it root in the Latin, passio, meaning passivity, and that’s its real connotation here. The word “patient” also derives from this. Hence what the Passion narratives describe is Jesus’ passivity, his becoming a “patient”. He gives his death to us through his passivity, just as he had previously given his life to us through his activity.

Indeed the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke can each be neatly divided into two distinct parts: In each Gospel we can split off everything that is narrated until Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and call this part of the Gospel: The Activity of Jesus Christ. Then we could take the section of the Gospels that we call “the Passion” and call that section: The Passivity of Jesus Christ. This would in fact help clarify an important distinction: Jesus gave his live for us through his activity whereas he gave his death for us through his passivity. Hence: Up until his arrest, the Gospels describe Jesus as active, as doing in things, as being in charge, preaching, teaching, performing miracles, consoling people. After his arrest, all the verbs become passive: he is led away, manhandled by the authorities, whipped, helped in carrying his cross, and ultimately nailed to the cross. After his arrest, like a patient in palliative care or hospice, he no longer does anything; rather others do it for him and to him. He is passive, a patient, and in that passivity he gave his death for us.

There are many lessons in this, not least the fact that life and love are given not just in what we do for others but also, and perhaps even more deeply, in what we absorb at those times when we are helplessness, when we have no choice except to be a “patient”.


Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Death


Raissa Maritain, the philosopher and spiritual writer, died some months after suffering a stroke. During those months she lay in a hospital bed, unable to speak. After her death, her husband, the renowned philosopher, Jacques Maritain, in preparing her journals for publication, wrote these words:

“At a moment when everything collapsed for both of us, and which as followed by four agonizing months, Raissa was walled in herself by a sudden attack of aphasia. Whatever progress she made during several weeks by sheer force of intelligence and will, all deep communication remained cut off. And subsequently, after a relapse, she could barely articulate words. In the supreme battle in which she was engaged, no one on earth could help her, myself no more than anyone else. She preserved the peace of her soul, her full lucidity, her humor, her concern for her friends, the fear of being a trouble to others, and her marvelous smile and the extraordinary light of her wonderful eyes. To everyone who came near her, she invariably gave (and with what astonishing silent generosity during her last two days, when she could only breathe out her love) some sort of impalpable gift which emanated from the mystery in which she was enclosed.”  

The emphasis on the last sentence is my own and I highlight it because, I believe, it has something important to say in an age where, more and more, we are coming to believe that euthanasia and various forms of physician-assisted suicide are the humane and compassionate answer to terminal illness.

The case for euthanasia generally revolves around these premises: Suffering devalues human life and euthanasia alleviates that suffering and the ravages of the body and mind that come with that suffering so as to provide a terminally ill person “death with dignity” and death with less suffering. As well, it is argued, that once an illness has so debilitated a person so as to leave him or her in a virtual vegetative state, what is the logic for keeping such a person alive? Once dignity and usefulness are gone, why continue to live?

What’s to be said in response to this? The logic for euthanasia, compassionate in so far as it goes, doesn’t go far enough to consider a number of deeper issues. Dignity and usefulness are huge terms with more dimensions than first meet the eye. In a recent article in AMERICA magazine, Jessica Keating highlights some of those deeper issues as she argues against the logic of those who have lauded Brittany Maynard’s (the young woman who captured national attention last year by choosing assisted suicide in the face of a terminal illness) decision to take her own life as “courageous”, “sensible”, and “admirable”. Keating concedes that, had she not made that decision, Maynard would no doubt have suffered greatly and would in all likelihood eventually been rendered unproductive and unattractive.  But, Keating argues, “she would have been present in a web of relationships. Even if she had fallen unconscious, she likely would have been read to, washed, dressed and kissed. She would have been gently caressed, held and wept over. She would simply have been loved to the end.”

That’s half the argument against euthanasia. The other half reads this way: Not only would she have been loved to the end, but, perhaps more importantly, she would have been actively emitting love until the end. From her ravaged, silent, mostly-unconscious body would have emanated an intangible, but particularly powerful, nurture and love, akin to the powerful life-giving grace that emanated from Jesus broken, naked body on the cross.

We too seldom make this important distinction: We believe that Jesus saved us through his life and through his death, as if these were the same thing. But they are very different: Jesus gave his life for us through his activity, his usefulness, through what he could actively do for us. But he gave his death for us through his passivity, through his helplessness, through the humiliation of his body in death. Jesus gave us his greatest gift precisely during those hours when he couldn’t do anything active for us.

And this isn’t something simply metaphorical and intangible.  Anyone of us who have sat at the bedside of a dying loved one have experienced that in that person’s helplessness and pain he or she is giving us something that he or she couldn’t give us during his or her active life. From that person’s helplessness and pain emanates a power to draw us together as family, a power to intuit and understand deeper things, a deeper appreciation of life, and especially a much deeper recognition of that person’s life and spirit. And this, impalpable gift, as Maritain says, emanates from the mystery of pain, non-utility, and dying in which he or she is enclosed.

In our dying bodies we can give our loved ones something we cannot fully give them when we are healthy and active. Euthanasia is partially blind to the mystery of how love is given. 








Seeing in a Deeper Way


Sometimes you can see a whole lot of things just by looking. That’s one of Yogi Berra’s infamous aphorisms. It’s a clever expression of course, but, sadly, perhaps mostly, the opposite is truer. Mostly we do a whole lot of looking without really seeing much. Seeing implies more than having good eyesight. Our eyes can be wide open and we can be seeing very little. 

I’ve always been intrigued by how scripture describes Paul immediately after his conversion. We always assume that it tells us that Paul was struck blind by his vision, but, I think, the text implies more. It tells us that Paul got up off the ground with his eyes wide open, seeing nothing.  That doesn’t necessarily equate with physical blindness. He may well have been seeing physically, but he wasn’t seeing the meaning of what he was getting himself into. Someone had to come and open his eyes, not just so that he could see again physically but especially that he could see more deeply into the mystery of Christ. Seeing, truly seeing, implies more than having eyes that are physically healthy and open. We all see the outer surface of things, but what’s beneath isn’t as automatically seen.

We see this, for instance, in what’s contained inside the healing miracles of Jesus. In the Gospels, we see Jesus perform a number of healings. He heals lame people, deaf people, mute people, people with leprosy, and two women who for different reasons are unable to become pregnant. What’s important to see in these various miracles is that, almost always, there’s more at issue than mere physical healing. Jesus is healing people in a deeper way, that is, he is healing the lame so that they can walk in freedom and in service of God. He is healing the deaf so that they can hear the Good News. He is healing the mute so that they can open their mouths in praise. And he is healing those who are hemorrhaging interiorly so that they can bring new life to birth.

We see this most clearly at those times when Jesus heals people who are blind.  He’s giving them more than just physical sight; he’s opening their eyes so that that can see more deeply. But that’s only an image. How might it be unpackaged? How can the grace and teachings of Jesus help us to see in a deeper way? Here are some suggestions:

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through familiarity to seeing through wonder.

G.K. Chesterton once affirmed that familiarity is the greatest of all illusions and that the secret to life is to learn to look at things familiar until they look unfamiliar again. We open our eyes to depth when we open ourselves to wonder.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through paranoia and self-protection to seeing through metanoia and nurture.

It is not incidental that the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in the Synoptic Gospels is the word “metanoia”, a word that opposes itself to “paranoia”. We open our eyes to depth with we shift from a posture of self-protection to a posture of nurture.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through jealousy to seeing through admiration.

Our perception becomes distorted whenever we move from the happy state of admiration to the unhappy state of envy. Our eyesight is clear when we delight in admiration.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through bitterness to seeing through eyes purified and softened by grief.

The root of bitterness is wound and the way out of bitterness is grieving. Tears clear our eyesight because they soften a heart hardened by wound.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through fantasy and auto-eroticism to seeing through appreciation and prayer.

One of the key movements within our spiritual lives is the movement from fantasy to prayer, a movement that ultimately frees us from wanting to press to ourselves all that’s beautiful to appreciating beauty for its own sake. We can only really see and appreciate beauty when we stop lusting for it.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through relevance to seeing through contemplation.

Our longing for relevance makes us look out at the world with restless, dissatisfied eyes. We practice mindfulness and see the richness of the present moment only when our disquiet is stilled by solitude.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through anger to seeing through forgiveness.

Nothing taints our eyesight as much as anger. It’s the most debilitating of all cataracts. And nothing cleanses our vision as much as forgiveness. Nobody holding a grudge sees straight.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through longing and hunger to seeing through gratitude.

Longing and hunger distort our vision. Gratitude restores it. It enables insight. The most grateful person you know has the best eyesight of all the people you know.

Love is the eye! So say the medieval mystics, in wisdom that needs to be added to the medical vocabulary of contemporary optometry. Seeing straight has more dimensions than we normally imagine.