Many of us have probably seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie. When it was released in 2004 it caused quite a stir amongst different groups of people, not least for its gruesome and bloody portrayal of the torture that Jesus endured during the last twelve hours of his earthly life.
The word ‘passion’ has its origins in the Greek verb ‘pasch?’, to suffer. So when we talk about the Passion of Jesus, we are referring to the suffering he endured, particularly during the last week of his life. In a matter of days, from the time that he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, receiving wild acclaim from the crowds laying palm branches in front of him and hailing him as the coming King, to the utter humiliation of being crucified at the hands of the Romans, Jesus’ life was turned completely on its head.
He knew his days were numbered of course. The unfolding events of that tumultuous week came as no surprise to him. Luke 9 tells us that he resolutely set out for Jerusalem, telling his disciples that he will suffer and die at the hands of the authorities in that centre of power. His disciples were expecting him, as the Messiah, to overthrow the oppressive Roman regime, violently if need be. So for Jesus to speak about his upcoming death was something the disciples were simply unable to comprehend. No wonder Peter earlier rebuked him and said this must never happen (Mark 8:31-33).
While Jesus knew full well what he was up to, we also see, in all four Gospel accounts, that his attitude was one of service. That was in fact the very reason he was heading to his death, “to serve, not to be served, and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.” (Mark 10:45). For his disciples this required a complete change of mindset to understand what he was on about. The saying ‘everything you know is wrong’ was one they would have come to intimately relate to. And so, as they were squabbling over who would be the greatest in this new kingdom that Jesus was bringing in, Jesus turned it all around and said to them that if they want to be first, then the way to do it is to serve. And, as always, Jesus walked his talk. By leading the way himself, he had the moral authority to tell his disciples that the way of life was the way of putting yourselves out there for others. And that inherently involves suffering.
If we watch the news every day we are reminded that we live in a world of suffering. Despite great progress towards poverty alleviation over the years, there are still 22,000 children who die every day from poverty-related diseases. The Christian faith proclaims loudly and clearly that the cries of the poor are heard by God, for this is a God who has been in their shoes. He does not sympathise from afar; he empathises from within. We see Christ in the eyes of those who suffer. This is God come to earth as a human person and walking in our footsteps. This is a God who says in the Garden of Gethsemane that he is troubled to the point of death, who is so anguished that he sweats drops of blood as he contemplates the incomprehensible enormity of what he is about to go through, all for love, all to make a better world in every way. Who could imagine a God who is anguished, a God who suffers, and a God who, through all of this, serves? Is this not love at its best, continuing to give despite the cost?
Such extravagant love is of course what inspires us millions of Christians to work for the betterment of our world, to work to bring in the kingdom of God. The love of God gives us the strength to be the best we can be in our efforts to set the world right. Love shows us the way, love we see personified in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.