As time goes on, we seem to have a habit of changing the meaning of words. Some of us remember learning Latin and Greek roots when we went to school. That helped us in understanding some words - though the present-day meaning didn’t always seem closely related to the root meaning at all.
We learnt, for example, that the Latin verb for "suffer" is patior, passum (the past participle is often the form that comes over into English words). So when we refer to the "passion" of Christ, we are talking about his suffering. Yet nowadays "passion" refers to any strong emotion without any suggestion of suffering. It may be, as one dictionary puts it, "intense desire, ardent affection, or enthusiasm".
Our thoughts are moving forward to the events of Good Friday and Easter. This year the sufferings of that time have been graphically portrayed on screen by the Mel Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ. The film is rated MA. It holds back nothing in the unrelenting brutality of Roman scourging and crucifixion. It isn’t a film for the squeamish or faint-hearted. The reality of the scourging is recorded in the gospels without the detail. I am sure there are some people who shouldn’t go to see it. I commend it to those who should.
Over forty years ago I read about what was involved in Roman scourging and crucifixion in Alfred Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah which came out in 1883-1890. Edersheim was born in Vienna of Jewish parents. Mel Gibson’s film closely matches his description. Scourging is described as the introduction to crucifixion - "the intermediate death". The film-maker has done his homework thoroughly and, as the Pope said after viewing the film, "It is as it was".
Of course, we have thought we are superior, above all that sort of violence. We haven’t believed human evil is a bad as that - that is, until September 11 and Bali, or until we have read some of the reports of Amnesty International. It is part of our world, and, more than we like to acknowledge, it is becoming part of our society too.
Our other objection is that we don’t believe that level of suffering was necessary for the atonement of human sin - not our sins, anyway!
In a way, I think we are afraid of passion - I mean here the passion of committed action. We are afraid of it now because of passionate fanatics. O yes, this includes the suicide bombers, but our fear began before they arrived on the scene.
Over thirty years ago a regular church member confided in me that, while "committed", she didn’t want to "go too far" with her faith. Her reason - her father became absorbed in Bible Study with the JWs and very nearly joined them. By our lack of "passion" we have handed far too much ground to the various sect groups.
In an earlier day the word "enthusiasm" was used in that way. You’ll have to pardon a return to those roots for this one. It comes from the Greek enthusiazo from en theo which literally means "in God". The word was coined by the Greek philosopher Plato to refer to the direct intuition of the divine by the indwelling of God in the human soul - in people like poets, mystics and prophets. In English the word was first used in this strict Platonic sense. But "enthusiastic" soon fell to mean "fanatical" in a bad sense. These days "enthusiasm" isn’t quite so extreme.
"Passion", "enthusiasm" " both can be misguided and misplaced. Yet I sense that we are tragically short of both of them.
In his poem "Second Coming", Irish poet and playwright, William Butler Yeats, describes the situation -
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats is filled with foreboding. His picture of a "Second Coming" is not at all in the Christian sense.
But note his contrast. Those whom he describes as "the best" are blandly without any conviction. The "worst" seem to have an over-done passion.
It shouldn’t be that way at all. My prayer for us all at this season is that - with or without the help of the movie - we will come to a deeper appreciation of the passionate commitment of Christ throughout his suffering, and that we will come to our own passionate commitment to spread the good news of the one who gave his all for us and who lives again - our Saviour and our Lord.
© Peter J. Blackburn 2004