Reflections on the Passion

For over 50 years now, I’ve been listening to the passion reading on Palm Sunday. I don’t recall when I first began to understand it in a meaningful way, but I do know that my views have changed over the years. For example, I used to think the disciples (Apostles? Judas?) had a pretty good point about the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet. Maybe it would have been better to sell it and give the proceeds to the poor. Yet Jesus defended her, saying “the poor you will always have with you…but you will not always have me” and “wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” And so it is, Jesus and the Apostles are no longer with us, except in spirit, much of the world is still poor, and we are still telling the story. But who was this woman? Is the story really in her memory? I am reminded of the stained glass window at OLM dedicated to “Ralph Scott’s Parents.” Like Ralph’s parents, this woman is only remembered as the one who spilled perfume on the feet of Jesus, foreshadowing his burial scant days later. I understand better now that cold, calculated logic does not always serve faith and ritual. In the movie, Elvira Madigan, an artsy flick from the sixties, she and her lover spill a bottle of wine on a picnic and let it spill without making any effort to right the bottle. My brother Tom always pointed to that scene as his favorite. Sometimes the moment is too sweet or too poignant to interrupt with quotidian behavior. “Leave her alone,” says Jesus, and I understand Him now, better than I did when I was younger.

Another part of the story that used to bother me, and still does for that matter, is the betrayal by Judas. Judas was probably one of the most intelligent of the Apostles, and their treasurer. He was perhaps more familiar with the politics in Jerusalem and more inclined than the others to question the path that Jesus appeared to be taking. We cannot know why he chose to betray Jesus, but clearly his greatest sin was despair and his decision to take his own life. When I was young and being indoctrinated by nuns, suicide was considered the worst possible sin, not only mortally wrong, but also by its very definition, unforgivable. Even the opportunity for Christian burial was denied to the victim in those days (though I think the Church has since softened that ruling.) So I was concerned for Judas’ soul, which he apparently lost in spite of his eventual deep regret for his actions. Peter, who might have done the same thing under different circumstances, was instead forgiven for his denials. Big difference between two Apostles who were both very sorry for what they did. Now, I’m more inclined not to judge Judas, but leave that to God. If and when I enter the pearly gates, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Judas there, humble and contrite, but nonetheless sharing God’s merciful bounty.

My younger mind also had lots of trouble with the meekness of Jesus before Pilate. Why didn’t He defend himself? Why not at least try? The silence of Jesus in the face of betrayal and false accusations astounded me. Now I understand better what Jesus understood—that there was nothing He could have done to change the outcome short of reneging on His roll as redeemer. Also, His human self must have been weary and resigned to His fate. In the end, He gained strength of purpose as His suffering increased. He was meek, yes, but determined. His kingdom was not of this world.

The good thief knew that. He says humbly, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies simply, “…today you will be with me in paradise.” Of all the words in all the gospels, these may be the best. Could one ask for a better death? Imagine hearing those words from Jesus, “today you will be with me in paradise.” Yet each day we forget that that is our goal. Each day, in going about our necessary business, in earning our keep by the sweat of our brow (or by the sweat of others’ brows), in seeking worldly success (what does if profit a man if he gain the whole world…), in our reactions to the events that can take over our lives, we forget that our one purpose is to save our soul. May Jesus, in His infinite mercy, remember us, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.

DadObservations04/13/03 2 comments


Patrick • 04/17/03 11:58 PM:

It’s hard to respond to your serious, thought-provoking posts. I guess we do better with silly things. But I will say that I’ve also thought a lot about Jesus’ hard saying that we will always have the poor with us. He followed it up with “but you will not have me with you always,” which takes some of the edge off. You can’t really interpret him as contradicting his own teaching that we should serve the poor. But is he saying that it’s okay to enjoy life? Maybe. Because you could always, always use the money you spent on your plane ticket or concert ticket or museum ticket or meal or school tuition or church building or anything to give to the poor. And, of course, there’s that Adamic curse that we should get our bread by the sweat of our brow hanging around to complicate matters. It’s not nice to say it, but if the poor never have to work, if they only receive handouts, then are they fulfilling this life’s purpose? Dizzying complexities. Too often we stick to the extremes or ignore the issues in order to go on living without a guilty conscience.

I could go on, but I won’t. I will mention, though, that your title made me think of the REM song “Talk about the Passion,” which doesn’t really make much lyrical sense (and you can’t tell if they mean The Passion or just any old passion), but I thought of it anyway. And your thoughts about Judas are probably similar to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s, which is why Judas is basically the protagonist of Jesus Christ Superstar and why so many churches were/are outraged by it. Me, I dig the music.

Thanks, Dad, for some wonderful insights. Even though they’re harder to do, I think we should all aspire to write some meditative, serious posts now and then.

Patrick • 05/08/03 10:19 AM:

I’ve been thinking about your post some more, because I am using it in my own episode about Buenos Aires. (Dad, you’re the second author of my book! But it’s okay because the credit for authorship goes to “Patrick Madden” which could be any one of us!)

Anyway, I have been thinking that churches in general are afraid of their members thinking too deeply about the gospel. That’s why the Catholic Church for so long kept the Bible out of the commoners’ hands (or it’s one reason) and why Mormon Sunday School is such a joke (most of the time, but not always, thankfully). I can understand the impulse somewhat, after all, Jesus did say that we should become as little children (have that faith). But he also said we should be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (I wonder what the original aramaic or Greek words for wise and harmless were). In any case, people themselves often want a protective cocoon to avoid thinking about the pieces that don’t line up with the black and white presented to them in church. Is this naivete? Or is it optimism? Can the same result come from either perspective? A mixture? In any case, I find a complex faith (something like what Brian Doyle expresses in his essays, something like what I aspire to) most compelling. You don’t need to lie to yourself, make yourself believe that the world is just or God intercedes all the time. Maybe believe some version of “my life and afterlife will go better for me if I strive to obey God’s commandments and love my fellowman than it would go otherwise.” Said Neil Peart in a moment of, I believe, genius: “Faith is cold as ice. Why are little ones born only to suffer, for the want of immunity or a bowl of rice? Who would pay the price on the heads of the innocent children if there’s some immortal power to control the dice?” Who can argue with that? But the same knowledge may lead us to very different conclusions and attitudes. “Ye have the poor with you always” may give to some people the justification they need to hoard their riches. But it might inspire others to serve selflessly all their days to alleviate poverty.

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

Please capitalize your name properly and use the same information each time you comment. We will not send you spam, and your email address will not be posted.

Remember me?


Related Entries
  1. The Passion
    We saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ yesterday and found it extremely powerful and suitably controversial.