For today’s musical pairing, listen to “Agnus Dei,” Samuel Barber’s own choral arrangement of his “Adagio for Strings.” Note that all the songs for this series have been gathered into a Spotify playlist here.
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’”
Meditation 13. 1,324,907 confirmed cases, 73,703 deaths globally.
The chapters of the Gospels describing the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are often called “passion” narratives. Medieval dramatizations are called “passion plays,” and the most famous rendering of those stories in film is called The Passion of the Christ.
As we enter into Passion Week, it’s worth pausing and asking why this is so. Why do we call these gospel accounts the “passion” of Jesus?
Words have histories, and the history of the word passion is long and illuminating. Passio is the Latin version of the Greek word pathos. For Aristotle and his followers, pathos referred to an affliction or disease. It was something endured passively, and morally it was neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. Later, for the Stoics, the passiones were more associated with longing. We are not afflicted with disease but with desire. Whereas the Aristotelian school opposed passio to actio (passivity to action), the Stoics opposed passio to ratio (desire to reason). The intent of the Stoic was not to endure afflictions patiently but to rise above our desires and yearnings into the higher tranquility of reason.
In other words, suffering and longing weave together in passion. You can hear the echoes of that history in words that derive from pathos and passio, such as sympathy and compassion, apathy and impassibility, pathological and impassioned.
As the philologist Erich Auerbach explains in Literary Language and Its Public, Christian thought goes further when it speaks of bonae passiones or good passions. The Christian does not seek to retreat from the longings and sufferings of the world, but to shape her worldly longings into longings for God, and her worldly sufferings into sufferings for Christ. By entering into her own sufferings, and the sufferings of others, particularly those who suffer unjustly, she takes up her cross, follows Jesus, and joins in the fellowship of his sufferings.
These concepts were fashioned centuries ago and are reflected in art and literature and the devotional texts of the mystics and monastics. But they touch on something—the duality of suffering and yearning—we can easily understand. When we desire something in the depths of our being, do we not suffer for its absence? Or when we suffer something deeply, do we not long for another world, a better world, a world there all things are made right? Is this not why we undertake the privations of Lent, so that even these minor sufferings will summon and deepen our desire for the deliverance of God?
It was the passionate love of God that moved him to enter into the sufferings of humankind and begin the redemption and restoration of the world. Countless times throughout the history of the church, it has been the passionate love of the Christian that moves her to suffer with those who suffer from injustice or want and to bring hope and healing into places of pain.
There is suffering in longing and longing in suffering, and sometimes it takes suffering to awaken or reawaken our desire for justice, community, and the final triumph of good.
This week may be the darkest week of the pandemic for those of us in the United States. Perhaps it’s entirely appropriate, then, that it should also be the week of Christ’s passion, a week in which the love of God and the suffering of God redeemed the children of God and began the restoration of the world.
We ask you, O Lord, that you would help us in our suffering to sense the deeper yearning of our souls for you—and in our yearning to reach out to the suffering world as you do.
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