The Passion which Is Passivity

Catholic Cemetery at Gethsemane, Mount of Olives

The great Kenotic Hymn of Christ in Philippians 2 describes him as one who “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant.” That humble, vulnerable emptying reached its depths in the cruelty of the crucifixion. 

Ron Rolheiser (Sacred Fire, ch. 9) has noted that when we think of the Passion of Christ, we usually focus on the pathos, the painful emotions, of the final week of his life. And so we should. But the notion of his Passion also carries the sense of passivity. 

The synoptic gospels describe the action of Jesus, tromping around Galilee teaching, healing, creating new life — until we reach that last week: Passion Week. And there it’s not action but passivity that characterizes Christ. The critical moment, the turning point, comes in Gethsemane, where Jesus chooses to drink the cup of Passion, the cup of Passivity. Later we hear the climactic Passivity in the crucified words, “It is finished.”

There is rich, deep theology here, going in so many directions. For me, one direction these days is toward the great mystery of the processes of aging and dying. I remember so well as a young adult assaulting the Almighty with the demand to make sense of this greatest of all injustices: that bodies wear out, decay, die. I could not understand it then.

Now, in my mid-sixties, having seen my father die recently and walking alongside Mom in her 90s, I’m beginning to make some halting steps toward comprehending. Aging and death are not understood by means of shaking one’s fist in anger at the injustice of it all. I think the path even to the outskirts of understanding comes in learning to surrender to Imitatio Christi (“Imitation of Christ”). And in particular, imitation of his Passion, his Passivity. 

The very idea of passivity in the face of that which threatens life raises the alarm in our heads. We are so committed to doing, to changing, to creating life as we want it, that the notion of giving up is an affront to rationality, a journey into absurdity. But of course, that’s what Passion is all about. The slow process of reordering our view of reality: from something that we must strive to control to something we strive to accept. 

Perhaps the greatest achievement of all one’s life is the accomplishment of no longer accomplishing, but instead surrendering. 

There’s the story of a deeply spiritual Catholic cleric who in old age was struck by a disease that left him almost completely paralyzed. Lying in bed with no movement possible below his neck, he whispered to a visitor, I’ve wanted my whole life to be fully surrendered to God. I’m making some real progress now. 

The Passion is the opposite of what happened in Genesis 3, where the humans decided to act toward making life better by eating the fruit that promised divine powers. A bad decision. What they needed instead was to wait patiently for the Creator’s gifts. To be sure, they had to labor, to serve the garden that would give them fruit. But when it came to the deepest gifts of the soul, they needed obediently to wait for the fruit of Divine giving, rather than trying to steal it. 

We all make the same mistake. We have trouble figuring out what is the work to put our hands to, and what is God’s work that we must keep our hands off. When it comes to the aging process, our bodies aid in keeping our hands out of the Holy business that only God can do. I don’t understand exactly what that Holy work is that calls for our passive watching and receiving, but I’m beginning to guess the direction toward it. 

We all go to Gethsemane at some point. We all have the choice of drinking the cup of Passivity in the end. God grant us the capacity of Imitatio Christi, lest we knock the cup out of God’s hand when it is offered to us. 

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