By FATHER JOSEPH A. FAHY, CP, Special Contributor | Published April 8, 2004
Reviews of the spectacular and controversial film, “The Passion of the Christ,” report that many viewers will not understand “the why” or the reasons contributing to Jesus’ crucifixion. Separating the Passion of Jesus from his entire public life and ministry leads to misunderstanding of the crucifixion. Jesus’ Passion is the consequence of his public ministry.
The Gospels graphically narrate the conflicts and controversies that contributed to and culminated on Mount Calvary. These conflicts, controversies, criticisms, distortions, hostilities, suspicions and plots were planned to catch Jesus in his speech and actions, so as to accuse and condemn him as a false prophet: “This man (Jesus) is not from God…we know this man is a sinner.” (Jn 11:16, 24)
We must keep in mind what Church documents teach us about those who plotted Jesus’ arrest and death. The Jewish people as a whole were not and are not responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. “Although they (certain religious leaders) were attempting to arrest Him (Jesus), they feared the crowds, for they regarded Him as a Prophet.” (Mt 21:46)
The four Gospels present a similar “core” of events comprising the four Passion narratives, with nuanced variations conditioned by each evangelist’s theological approach and the specific situation of his particular community to whom he addressed his Gospel…and in some cases by certain controversies and needs of his readers decades after the crucifixion. In considering growing hostility toward Jesus, we should constantly keep in mind the supreme priority of his life: “My food is to do the will of the One who sent me and to finish His work.” (Jn 4:34)
Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written. The evangelist presents early in the Gospel a series of five controversies between the Son of Man and spiritual leaders. Jesus is accused of blasphemy when he forgives the sins of the paralytic, is criticized for eating “with tax collectors and sinners,” the so-called dregs of society whom the “just” sedulously avoided as “unclean.” Jesus is censured for not requiring his disciples to fast. “As long as they have the bridegroom (the Lord) with them they cannot fast.” The crescendo of conflicts culminates when Jesus compassionately cures the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. “The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against Him to put Him to death.” (Mk 2:1-3, 6) After Jesus cleansed the Temple “when he began to drive out those selling and buying there, the chief priests and the scribes…were seeking a way to put Him to death.” (Mk 11:15, 18) Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (commemorated on Palm Sunday), acclaimed as “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mk 11:9), and the Temple action of cleansing explain why the Jewish and Roman leaders moved rapidly to arrest and execute Jesus. After his arrest, Jesus appeared before the Sanhedrin and was “condemned… as deserving death” for “blasphemy” because he answered that he was “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One.” (Mk 14:61) The leaders then “handed (Jesus) over to Pilate,” who in turn “handed Jesus over…to be crucified.” (Mk 15:15) The brazen calumny of Jesus’ accusers galvanized the indecisive Roman procurator, who had proclaimed Christ’s innocence, to order his execution. Jesus had admitted that he was a king but assured Pilate that his kingdom was not “of this world.” (Jn 18:36) After Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, the crowd wished “by force to make Him king.” Jesus hurriedly fled to the mountain to escape their violent attempt. (Jn 6:15) Jesus in no way wished to be a political Messiah or king. Pilate “knew that it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Him over” (Mk 15:10), but they terrified the vacillating procurator by a dangerous threat. “If you free this man you are no friend of Caesar.” The reigning Emperor Tiberius was extremely jealous of his imperial prerogatives and tolerated no challenges. “Anyone who makes himself a king becomes Caesar’s rival. (Pilate) handed him over to be crucified.” (Jn 19:12, 16)
In their respective infancy narratives Matthew and Luke already state certain forebodings of the future hostility to and violence toward the “newborn King of the Jews.” When the Magi informed Herod about the new King’s birth, “he was greatly troubled….” As they “did not return to Herod the cruel tyrant determined to search for the Child to destroy Him.” (Mt 2:2, 3, 13)
Luke continues with a tragic prophecy about the Infant when presented in the temple: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted.” (Lk 2:34) The classic prologue of St. John’s Gospel describes the coming of the eternal Word “made flesh”: “He came to His own, yet His own did not accept Him.” (Jn 1:1, 11, 14)
Luke portrays the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth “where He had been brought up.” Jesus read from the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me; He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and sight to the blind and to send the downtrodden away relieved, and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor.” Jesus concludes by saying “today this passage of Scripture sees its fulfillment.” (Lk 4:16-21) At first his fellow townspeople admire the grace and eloquence of his words. However, as he spoke, Jesus alluded to the universal implications of his ministry by mentioning how both the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, respectively, were sent to individual gentiles, implying widespread infidelity in Israel. The initial enthusiasm of his hearers suddenly erupts into violent indignation, as they furiously jostle him to the “brow of the hill” outside the town, “intending to hurl Him over the edge”—Jesus is to be crucified on Calvary, outside the holy city of Jerusalem. This criminal attempt is foiled but was a preview of the conflicts, final rejection, and crucifixion of Jesus—the effects of his fidelity to the saving mission outlined in the quotation from Isaiah, the ministry confided to him by his loving Father.
John’s Gospel also contains the masterpiece of Jesus’ greatest “sign,” the raising to life of the deceased Lazarus. Jesus, “the Resurrection and the Life,” restores the light of life to his beloved friend Lazarus whose death he mourned, already four days in the tomb. Since “Many…began to believe” in Jesus, certain leaders met and “planned to kill Him.” (Jn 11:25, 39, 52) Those “who walked in darkness” plot the death of him who is the “light of the world” and the source of Resurrection and life. Jesus applied to himself the divine name: “Before Abraham came to be, I AM.” “So they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area.” (Jn 8:59) Later, they would say: “We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God.” (Jn 10:33)
Jesus’ suffering, rejection and crucifixion occurred because of his relentless fidelity to the will of His Father. Our personal crosses will often be the struggles, frequently fierce, severe, searing, and ongoing, to be faithful to the values of Jesus by not succumbing to ideals and values inimical to those of Jesus. The pain and constant effort to be obedient may indeed be a true crucifixion and a death to what may powerfully attract us but is incompatible with true discipleship. At times the public profession of the ideals of Jesus by deed and word may expose us to ridicule, misunderstanding, opposition, persecution, and loss of what we prize in this life. The last two Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount call us to practice faithfully those Beatitudes. Our perfect Teacher, the Christ, completely lived these values before calling us to do so. “Blessed are those persecuted who suffer for holiness sake; the reign of God is theirs. Blessed are you when they insult you and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven; they persecuted the prophets before in the same way” (Mt 5:10-12) and as they did to the Christ of God. Early Christians “rejoiced that they had been judged worthy of suffering for the name of Jesus” (Acts 5:41). May we also rejoice when it is our privilege to suffer for fidelity to the crucified Christ.
Father Joseph A. Fahy, CP, works for the Hispanic Apostolate of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.