Remembering the Passion of Jesus

Today we remember the Passion and Death of Jesus. It’s important we do this because our memory of this event is integral to our identity as a Christian community.

Remembering is something we have to do.

A recent study shows that many people who consider themselves Christian do not believe that the events recounted in the New Testament really happened. They don’t believe that Jesus ever really lived, died on the cross and rose from the dead. They understand the stories to be religious myths.

One of the great strengths of Christianity is that it is an historical religion. St. Paul invited the Corinthians and probably anyone else who doubted this to go to Jerusalem and talk to eyewitnesses. The Christian faith is inextricably linked with geography. The Gospels insist time and time again of the importance of holy sites; Bethlehem, Nazareth, Caesarea-Philippi to the Temple, Golgatha and the Tomb. It was evidently considered of the highest importance by the Evangelists to record that a certain event happened in a certain place.

The Passion of Jesus, which we remember today, is just as real, just as rooted in time and place as our reality at this moment, and that is its power. In the Passion, we see the cross, something evil, an instrument of real pain, of real suffering transformed by God’s love, a love that is stronger than death. It is this living memory that gives us hope in the face of the all too real pain and suffering we encounter in our own lives.

Remembering is something we do.

I once had a conversation with a man whose wife was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. During the course of our conversation, this man shared with me his experience of being part of the first wave of the Normandy invasion. He was in the navy and part of the crew of a landing craft. He made 25 trips back and forth across the English Channel that day. In the beginning, he said they were ferrying soldiers across but by the end of the day they were bringing bodies back to Southampton stacked high like cordwood on the deck of the boat. I was in tears by the end of our conversation and so was he. He felt better though, he told me. He had remembered. He had remembered what was probably the most painful, chaotic and horrifying day of his life, the day that has probably shaped every one of his days since. His memories of that day have undoubtedly been colored by the passage of time. He can probably get his mind around what he experienced better now than before. Now he can tell the story. Years ago he probably couldn’t even talk about it. He didn’t have the right words. He couldn’t understand it. Can he understand it now? Probably not. But he can remember and there is something right, something satisfying, and something absolutely essential about remembering.

Remembering is something we do.

After our conversation I was struck by the irony of his situation. He felt better because he was able to share a memory with me that was part of who he was. The memory was a very painful one but integral to his identity. That man was, to some degree, who he was because of his experience at Normandy and because he could recall that experience.

His wife with Alzheimer’s had lost her memories. She had forgotten who she is. She is lost to her husband and he to her. Preserving memory is integral to preserving identity.

Today we are about remembering the passion and death of Jesus. This is important because our memory of this event is integral to our identity as a Christian community.

Remembering is something we have to do.

We must remember the passion of Jesus. This memory unfolds through time. It changes coloration. Remembering it makes us who we are, it defines us as a community and colors our perception of the world.

Do you think we will understand better through this experience of isolation and fear with the coronavirus, what the followers of Jesus felt and thought immediately following Jesus’ passion and death? Their lives were in turmoil. They were horrified by what they had witnessed and fearful of what might happen next. They felt confused and overwhelmed and unbearably sad.

They must have looked into their traditions, their past, for some kind of meaning.

Who would believe what we have heard?
To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

Isaiah 53:1-6

Yet as time passed, their memories became colored with new meaning. In time they were able to get their minds around what they experienced. Then they told the story.

Remembering is something we do.

It took a long time for the early Christian community to reach the level of understanding manifested in the account of the Passion from the Gospel of John.

Underneath this account is a terrifying story about betrayal by a friend, the arrest of an innocent person at night, the abuse of authority by those in power and cruel death. But as the community reached a deeper understanding of the story over time, they saw the horror of violent death overwhelmed by the power of redemptive love. Jesus was always in control. He sends Judas off to betray him. He chooses to place himself before his enemies. They come to arrest him, but they fall to the ground. Brought before Pilate, it seems that Jesus is conducting the interrogation. The whole of John’s Passion reveals the triumph of Christ.

The passion of Jesus has continued to be a powerful memory of the Christian community. The way that the community remembered shaped the identity of the community.

Sometimes the Passion of Jesus was remembered as an atrocity that needed to be avenged. Remembering in this way made the community hateful. It allowed the community to justify attitudes and behaviors that are by their very nature the antithesis of Jesus’ mission such as anti-Semitism and religious wars.

Mostly though, the Christian community has remembered the Passion of Jesus the way John did, as the most compelling statement of God’s love for the world. This memory has been the inspiration for innumerable holy lives, and countless acts of heroic self-sacrifice and generosity. This memory has been a source of hope for individuals facing suffering and loss and for the Christian community through some of the darkest chapters of human history.

Remembering is something we do, but the way we remember makes a difference.

Suffering is hard to understand and meaning only comes with time.

For Christians, all suffering mirrors the passion of Christ. As we remember the passion of Christ today, may we see more deeply into the suffering we bear and the sufferings our world bears.

~ Sister Mary Ann Strain, CP