Today, in the Roman Catholic tradition is the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Thus, the lectionary reading from Sacred Space focuses on the death of Christ and his heart that was pierced by the Roman soldier's spear.
The word “passion”, as I am using it in this blog post for today, comes from the Greek word used to describe the suffering of Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Passion Plays, based upon the Gospels, have been performed at least since the middle ages. In 1984, I attended a performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany. That year marked the 500th anniversary of that particular passion play, one in which over two thousand villagers participate every ten years. The performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play is an all day event, with a long intermission for lunch.
As we all know, the passion of Jesus Christ involved real suffering, with no intermission. Mel Gibson offered perhaps the closest and most accurate dramatic depiction of Jesus’ suffering in his film, The Passion of the Christ. However, even that effort falls short of what it must have been like to witness the actual suffering of Jesus, let alone, experience such suffering first hand.
The best we can do is to go back to the Gospels themselves and see what they have to teach us about the power of the passion. With that in mind, let us read John 19:16-42….
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.
“Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”
This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said,
“They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”
So this is what the soldiers did.
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
I would like to lead you through an examination of seven aspects of the passion of Jesus Christ based upon John’s Gospel….
First, we must look at the timing of the Passion.
As William Barclay points out, John gives us a different picture of the timing of the Passion from the Synoptic Gospels. Barclay writes,
Undoubtedly Mark wished to show the Last Supper as a Passover meal and that Jesus was crucified on Passover day; and Matthew and Luke follow Mark.
On the other hand John is quite clear that Jesus was crucified on the day before the Passover….
There is here a contradiction for which there is no compromise solution. Either the Synoptic gospels are correct or John is. Scholars are much divided. But it seems most likely that the Synoptics are correct. John was always looking for hidden meanings. In his story Jesus is crucified at somewhere near the sixth hour (Jn 19:14). It was just then that in the Temple the Passover lambs were being killed. By far the likeliest thing is that John dated things in order that Jesus would be crucified at exactly the same time as the Passover lambs were being killed, so that he might be seen as the great Passover Lamb who saved his people and took away the sins of the world. It seems that the Synoptic gospels are right in fact, while John is right in truth; and John was always more interested in eternal truth than in mere historic fact.
A second thing I would call your attention to is the Notice of the Passion.
Pilate had a notice fastened to the cross proclaiming Jesus’ crime, his claim to be the King of the Jews. The Jewish leaders wanted Pilate to spell out the fact that this was just a claim, not a fact. However, Pilate refused to budge.
What I think is striking is that this notice was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. Aramaic was the language of the Jews and in a sense represents religion. Latin was the language of law and government for the Roman Empire. Greek was the everyday language of that empire and represented the world of culture and beauty in form and in thought.
Jesus came to fulfill the hopes of all three of these: the worlds of culture, government and religion. He also came to redeem all three of these worlds, for all of them, including religion, go astray without him.
A third thing to notice in this passage is the Gamble of the Passion.
At the foot of the cross, the soldiers cast lots to see who would get Jesus’ seamless undergarment. This was the case because there were four soldiers and five articles of clothing to divide. Every Jew in Jesus’ day wore shoes, a turban, a girdle, a tunic and an outer robe.
The soldiers were gamblers, but Jesus was too. Studdert Kennedy once wrote the following poem….
And, sitting down, they watched him there,
The soldiers did;
There, while they played at dice,
He made his sacrifice,
And died upon his Cross to rid
God’s world of sin.
He was a gambler, too, my Christ.
He took his life and threw
It for a world redeemed.
And ere the agony was done,
Before the westering sun went down,
Crowning that day with its crimson crown,
He knew that he had won.
The soldiers gambled for Jesus’ garment. Jesus gambled for people’s souls. Furthermore, there is a sense also in which every Christian is a gambler. We bet our lives on the belief that Jesus was, and is, the Son of God, that he died for sinners, and that he truly rose up again from the grave.
Fourth, we must take notice of the Companions of the Passion.
There were four women at the cross. One was Jesus’ mother Mary. Simeon had prophesied to Mary at the beginning of Jesus’ life, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:35) Certainly, as the sword pierced Jesus’ body, it also pierced Mary’s soul. Mary suffered at least as much as any mother who has lost a child, perhaps more because of the horrific nature of Jesus’ death and the contrasting goodness she knew belonged to her son.
The second woman mentioned at the cross was Mary’s sister, Jesus’ aunt. In the Gospel of John, she does not have a name. However, when one studies the parallel passages in Mark 15:40 and Matthew 27:56, it is clear that her name is Salome and that she is the mother of Jesus’ disciples, James and John.
On one occasion, Jesus gave a very stern answer to his aunt. Salome had asked Jesus if her sons could sit on his right and on his left in the kingdom. Jesus told her she had no idea what she was asking. Then he asked a counter question of James and John, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:20 ff.) Now Salome was seeing the very bitter cup that Jesus had to drink.
The third woman at the cross we know nothing about: Mary the wife of Clopas. However, the fourth woman at the cross we know a little bit more about. Her name was Mary Magdalene, and according to Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2, Jesus drove seven demons out of her. No wonder she followed Jesus all the way to the cross! She could never forget the great thing he had done for her.
The final companion of Jesus we see at the cross is “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. By the end of this Gospel, we will learn that this is John, the son of Zebedee and Salome, the cousin of Jesus and the author of this Gospel.
Right through to the end of his life, Jesus was not thinking about himself, but about others. He knew someone would need to care for his mother Mary. He entrusted that job to his beloved cousin John, even while he was suffering great physical torment on the cross.
At last, we come to the Culmination of the Passion.
John continues to show us, as he has from the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus’ full humanity as well as his full divinity, Jesus’ suffering and his triumph. We see Jesus’ full humanity in his words: “I am thirsty.” We see Jesus’ triumph in his words: “It is finished.”
That last phrase is one word in Greek: “tetelestai”. In those days, a merchant would stamp this word on a bill, when the customer had paid in full. Jesus paid in full for all of our sins. When he died on the cross, he knew his work was complete.
We also see in this passage the importance of the Blood of the Passion for John. John sees in all the events of the Passion a fulfillment of various Hebrew Scriptures, but he also most likely saw a special significance to the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side when the Roman soldier pierced it with his sword.
On the physical side of things, the reason for the blood and water flowing out of Jesus’ body was that his heart had ruptured and the blood mingled with the fluid of the pericardium. The sword must have pierced the pericardium and thus “blood and water” flowed out. Once again, this emphasizes the full humanity of Jesus as well as the fact that he really died on the cross, something that some people down through history have amazingly questioned.
However, William Barclay suggests that there was also a spiritual meaning in this for John. “It was a symbol of the two great sacraments of the Church. There is one sacrament which is based on water-baptism; and there is one which is based on blood—the Lord’s Supper with its cup of blood-red wine. The water of baptism is the sign of the cleansing grace of God in Jesus Christ; the wine of the Lord’s Supper is the symbol of the blood which was shed to save men from their sins.”
We sing about this in the great hymn:
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Finally, we come to the Burial after the Passion.
Two more great characters come into play here: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Both were members of the Sanhedrin. Both, apparently, were secret followers of Jesus. Nicodemus we have seen before, approaching Jesus under cover of darkness and asking how a man might be born again.
Now we see both men beginning just such a new life, taking bold steps of courage and openly declaring their love for our Lord. Joseph does this by asking permission from Pilate to bury Jesus’ body and using his own tomb for the purpose. Nicodemus shows his devotion to the Master by bringing the linens and spices to embalm the body.
As someone once said, “It is not possible to be a secret disciple of Jesus. Either the secrecy kills the discipleship or the discipleship kills the secrecy.” Thankfully, in the case of Joseph and Nicodemus, discipleship overcame secrecy, shyness and fear.
The power of Jesus’ passion does that to people. Jesus prophesied that it would. He said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”
When I was twelve years old, I heard Robert Schuller on television preach a message about forgiveness that changed my life. I understood for the first time that Jesus had died for me. For the first time in my life, I felt forgiven of all my sin. That day I felt like I was floating on air. The love of Jesus, demonstrated for me on the cross, made me want to follow him for the rest of my life, and that is what I have sought to do, though not always as perfectly as I would like.
Has the power of Jesus’ passion changed your life?