I have always applied the word passion in an active sense, as powerful zeal for a cause. But the traditional phrase for the sufferings of Jesus from Gethsemane through Calvary, ‘the Passion of Christ’, reflects the noun’s Latin origin from the verb patio [= to undergo] as does the adjective passive, and the phrase ‘under sufferance’ resembles the noun suffering. Father Henri Nouwen (whose Dutch name is pronounced Henry Now-ven) expounds it in ‘Adam Arnett, God’s Beloved’, the account of his eighteen months as a carer for this totally incapacitated young man in L’Arche Daybreak community, Toronto. Here is my ‘reader’s digest’ version.
Jesus’ passion came after much activity.
During those three intense, nearly hectic years Jesus was in control of the situation. He came and went as he chose; his disciples followed him wherever he went. But at Gethsemane all his action came to a sudden end. He was handed over by one of his disciples to undergo suffering. His passion began from that moment. He could no longer do anything; everything was done to him. The great mystery of Jesus’ life is that he fulfilled his mission not in action but in passion, not by his own decision but by other people’s decisions concerning him. It was when he was dying on the cross that he cried out, ‘It is fulfilled’.
Adam’s whole life was passion
Adam underwent everything that was done for him, to him, with him, and around him. He lived every moment of his life waiting for others to act on his behalf – to bathe and dress him, to feed and transport him. Adam’s passion was a profound prophetic witness against a society driven by individualism, materialism and sensationalism.
Adam’s total dependence made it possible for him to live fully only if we lived in a loving community around him. He challenged us, clearly, to trust that compassion, not competition, is the way to fulfil our human vocation. The truth is that a very large part of our lives is passion. Not only when we are young and inexperienced or when we are old and needy but also when we are strong and self-reliant, substantial parts of our success, wealth, health and relationships are influence by circumstances beyond our control.
‘Slow down, Henri’
If Henri rushed Adam, say pushing his arms through his sleeves, to be finished by 9 am ‘so that I could do my other work,’ Adam could communicate. ‘He let me know that I wasn’t really present to him.’ Occasionally he responded by having a grand mal seizure – his way of saying, ‘Slow down, Henri!’ and it then required additional bed rest. ‘I was beginning to understand Adam’s language and was willing to follow his rhythms and adapt my ways to his needs. I began to talk to Adam – about the weather, the day ahead, his day and my work, which of his clothes I liked most, which cereal I would give him, even my secrets, my moods and frustrations. Adam was offering me a safe place to be.’
* Henri learned to accept his own brokenness by becoming vulnerable. For passion is not being an impassive, fatalistic doormat but, as was
the Passion of Christ, a willing choice (see Isaiah 50:6; Hebrews 7:27; 9:14).