A Commentary on the Gospels of the Passion

passion imageby Donald Senior, CP

The passion of Jesus is both a historical event rooted in the past and a living dynamic memory that gives meaning to the present.

As past event, the passion of Jesus took place sometime around the year thirty A. D. in the turbulent world of first century Palestinian Judaism. Jesus, a compelling religious teacher and extraordinary healer, was arrested in Jerusalem and publicly executed by crucifixion, a Roman form of capital punishment. The gospels portray Jesus’ death as the culmination of his mission, the final act of selfless love and service that sealed a life totally committed to others. Jesus’ death was a prophetic witness in the cause of God’s justice. Despite opposition and hostility directed at him and his mission, Jesus remained faithful until the end and ultimately was vindicated by God’s love, a love stronger than death.

But for Christian faith, the passion of Jesus is not simply a heroic and poignant death confined to past history. The passion of Jesus lives on in the faith and experience of the Christian community. Through the mysterious communion of God with humanity, Jesus’ sufferings continue in the suffering of every child of God, down to the present moment. The anxious and lonely elderly resident of a nursing home who turns her face to the crucifix on the wall. The parent who has suffered the unspeakable loss of a child who sinks to his knees like Jesus in Gethsemane. The refugee who has lost home and family to insane and inexplicable violence and cries out with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The leader who under the threat of death tells the truth about a despotic regime while remembering that Jesus the prophet set his face for Jerusalem. The nurse who wipes sweat from the brow of an AIDS patient and sees there the face of the crucified Jesus.

The passion of Jesus is indeed a historical event that ultimately gave meaning and force to the entire mission of Jesus and it is a living memory, a powerful grace that gives meaning and hope to all human suffering. The gospels accounts of the passion embrace both dimensions, rooting their narratives in the historical traditions about Jesus’ last days but inviting the reader to find in the passion of Jesus the ultimate meaning of human existence and Christian commitment.

This presentation embraces both dimensions of the passion of Jesus. It is not for specialists but for thoughtful Christians and others who want to know more about this compelling story. By recalling the distinctive portrayal of the suffering Jesus in each of the Gospels, we invite the reader to enter deeply into the mystery of the passion and to bring one’s own experience into vital contact with this core of the Christian message. This has been done by every generation of Christian in word and art and practices of piety, as the materials on the devotion to the passion recall for us. At the same time, the historical information that follows the study of the gospels texts and the accompanying illustrations remind us that the death of Jesus was not the figment of Christian imagination but an event rooted in the complexities and tensions of first century history. The bibliography provides for further study.