The Way of Passion

Service on April 5, 2020
by Paul Simpson Duke

Today brings a yet another twist to the weirdness of our situation. Palm Sunday is for reenacting, of all things, a parade—and it’s hard to pull off a parade when we’re all locked up in separate spaces. We should be waving a sea of palm branches and singing our hearts out together. When I imagined myself this week holding up my one little palm branch in isolation, I couldn’t help but think of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. You remember his pitiful little tree: short, scrawny, three branches, one ornament; pick it up, and half the needles fall off. Holding up a palm branch by yourself might seem a little like that.

But maybe it should feel more like this: do you see what I’m holding? A single leaf from a palm branch used on a Palm Sunday in our church years ago. A wonderful woman named Zella Willis later plucked it from the branch and tied it into the shape of a cross. Now it’s brown and brittle and bent. And I think it has a lot to say. An emblem of praise is fashioned into an emblem of death. At one and the same time, it shows how the world welcomes Jesus and kills him, how songs of half-understood hope are met by unimaginably self-giving love, how lifted branches are answered by a lifted cross. And to me, it represents his acceptance of many different responses, feelings, actions directed toward him: adoration and hatred; singing for him and spitting on him; shouting hosanna and screaming, “Crucify!” All of it, he takes. He absorbs the contradiction and bears it all.

Which brings us to the word passion. Have you ever wondered why the last hours of Jesus are called his “passion”? For us that word means enthusiasm, really being into something: “she’s got a passion for golf; he’s got a passion for euchre.” For heaven’s sake, why is passion the word for the terrible end of Jesus’ life? Well, it’s because, going centuries back, the root of the word passion means “to suffer.” And the root word behind that word meant “to endure.” And the root word behind that meant simply, “to be acted on.” That’s the heart of the passion of Jesus: he turns from doing to being done to, lays aside his role as the one who acts and becomes the one who is acted upon.

Jesus was most certainly a doer. Think of all the initiatives he took. He went to where the people were, he taught, healed them, fed them; he journeyed, invented fantastic stories, gathered children into his arms, and went to parties. He confronted, commanded, and knocked over tables in the temple. All of this action he initiated. He was the master of his own verbs—till he made his last journey, and began letting everybody else have the verbs.

Look at the hosanna parade that way. That crowd doesn’t understand him. To them, he’s the liberator, but they’re projecting on him, and very soon, they’ll turn on him. And he accepts their inadequate, fleeting praise. When the authorities tell him, “Make these people shut up,” he says “No.” He will take what is given to him.

By Thursday, the worst begins. Judas comes through the dark to give him the betrayer’s kiss, and Jesus bears it. The arresting officers lead him into court where lies are told against him; and he is silent. He overhears Peter cursing and shouting that he never knew him, and he absorbs it. He’s taken to the governor, who tells him to defend himself, but he won’t. They tie him to a post and whip him with leather studded with bits of iron and bone. Soldiers beat him, push thorns into his head, strip him, drape him in a scarlet robe, stick a reed in his hand, bow to him, spit on him, lay the heavy crossbeam on the back of his shoulders, push him up the hill, force him to the ground, set nails on his hands and drive them through, haul him up onto the vertical beam, hammer nails through his feet. A crowd screams insults at him, the religionists laugh at him; even the bandits he is dying with jeered at him.

Relentlessly he is acted on, done to. How horribly fitting that the manner of his execution involved the affixing of his open hands, as if all of this is about nothing but his receiving. And what a twisted irony that the mockers all said, “Hey, Messiah, come down, take action, do something to save yourself!—when in fact he was there in the end to be acted on.

It’s the extreme form of the human condition: being d0ne to. We may imagine our lives are mostly made up of our actions, decisions, initiatives, but the fact is that we do less than we are done to. Our existence is set inside a climate, inside of systems, institutions, events, families, communities, countless happenings, including catastrophes. Don’t we feel it now? Across the globe people are having to come to new terms with what’s happening to us, to all of us at once. All the plans we’d made and assumptions we’ve had about all we would do, the people we’d be with, our celebrations, our work, our income, our future—it’s all upended. There seems to so little in our hands to manage or accomplish, and so much to be endured and waited out.

With new eyes we may look to the passion of Jesus, who set aside his great active agenda and turned to the taking of what was dealt to him. So he enters the extremes of our condition. And here, if we have eyes for it, we see the compassion of God fully inhabiting our human situation. Bearing the sins of the world? Yes, and always. But bearing also the epidemics of the world, bearing the randomness and cruelty of pain, bearing ignorance and stupidity and corrupt government and religion, bearing the horrors of injustice and the ache of abject animal need and the burdens of abuse, abandonment, grief. When our lot gets bad enough, some will say, “Why doesn’t God do something?”—when all along within the shadows God has been bearing it, bearing it to the darkest depths of absolute love, toward resurrection, new life. In these days of our passion, we could trust such love and lean on it.

And we could take our cue from Jesus, who in his being acted on, did not after all quit his freedom to act. He chose to pray, “Father forgive.” He chose to speak words of kindness and hope to a man dying beside him. He chose to give his mother and a friend to each other’s keeping. He chose at the last to pray “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” In the cruelest condition of being acted on, still he acted with a trusting, creative generosity—his other passion!

Then let it be that way for us. Acknowledging what limits us or threatens or reduces our control, we trust all of it into the gracious companionship of the One who bears it with us toward redemption. And we follow Christ in knowing that we were never so free as now to act with generous spirit, creative kindness, and faith.