Words Worth Pondering: The Passion of Christ

This week, in deference to Holy Week, I’m taking a break from ancient epic to consider the Passion of Christ. I'll start by asking two leading questions, the first of which is a kind of riddle: How is the Passion of Christ like a deponent verb? That one's rather obscure, so I'll answer it last. Let's begin with a somewhat easier question: Has it ever occurred to you that when we speak of the “passion of Christ,” we are using the word passion in a way that we rarely (if ever) do in any other context?

When we speak of “passion” in ordinary conversation, usually we mean something like “an overriding desire or interest,” as in “riding dirt bikes is my passion.” I’ve had many students tell me that they wanted to choose a major that they were “passionate” about, meaning simply something they are really interested in.

Two kinds of “passion”?

Captain Kirk enraged
Captain Kirk, in an alternate universe,
was ruled by his passions.
This idea that “passion” indicates intense interest is a watered-down version of an older meaning of the term: passion as an  emotion that is so powerful that it overwhelms us, takes control of us and make us do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. Anger, lust, fear are "passions" in this sense. We used to hear references to “crimes of passion,” meaning crimes committed in the heat of the moment, when a person acts under the impulse of overwhelming emotion that temporarily shorts out rational control — a kind of “temporary insanity” that diminishes moral culpability. This notion seems to have lost its force in the legal sphere, although it remains important in the moral sphere, for instance in considering whether a grave sin is fully intentional (mortal), or whether the sinner's guilt is mitigated by factors beyond the control of the will (see CCC 1857 ff).

If you look for the term “passion” in the Bible, you’ll find that only once is this word used to refer to Christ (perhaps not even once, depending on which translation you use).
To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3, RSV-CE) 
Every other reference to passion uses the term in the sense of overriding impulses or desires (almost always to be resisted), as in Proverbs 14:30, which counsels against rash anger (“A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.”) or Romans 6:12, which refers to the passions as ruling our fleshly nature (“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”).

The passions (all kinds of strong emotion or desire) have been of concern to anyone interested in moral living since ancient times. Greek and Roman philosophy advised that our rational faculties should govern our actions, rather than letting the passions get the upper hand. In fact, this ability to be governed by reason rather than the passions was considered the principle way that humans differ from, and are superior to, mere animals. The Christian view, which recognizes free will as another distinguishing factor, agrees with this philosophical idea. Paragraph 1761 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the passions :
In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, “either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way.” It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason.
In the Catholic understanding, then, we cannot passively give in to our passions. We have to exert our self-control to keep them in check.

This idea of passion still seems to have little to do with Christ's Passion. If we picture Christ in the final hours of his life, we won’t see a man behaving “passionately.” In fact, what is remarkable is how meekly he accepts being betrayed, arrested, subjected to a series of monkey trials, beaten, insulted, spat upon, made a public spectacle, and finally tortured to death. Anyone else surely would have put up some kind of a fight or at least denounced his accusers “passionately.” Yet Jesus did not. “As a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.”

So what’s going on with this word, passion? Maybe these two uses of the word are false cognates — they look like the same word, but are unrelated etymologically? Actually, no. Rather the opposite is true — they are the same word, with the same essential meaning, but because of the way attitudes toward “the passions” (emotions) have changed over time, the connection between the two has gotten lost.

Digging around the roots

the flagellation of Christ
Traditionally, art depicts Christ
enduring patiently, impassively.
To see the connection, we need to get back to the etymological root from which this term sprang. But since doing so involves some discussion of Latin grammar that will probably make your eyes glaze over, I’m going to spend a little time digging around the roots to aerate the soil a little first.

It may help if first we think about some words that are closely related to “passion,” starting with “passive.” Someone who is passive lets things happen to him, but doesn’t do anything to affect what’s happening (he doesn't give into his passions). We often think of passivity as a negative trait — if someone is too passive, don’t you sometimes want to provoke them, just to see if you can get a reaction?

You may remember from your school days (if you were lucky enough to have been taught grammar) that there are passive verbs and active verbs. With an active verb, the grammatical subject is also the person or thing causing the action expressed by the verb: Bob reads (Bob is the grammatical subject and also the agent or doer of the action the verb expresses). With a passive verb, the grammatical subject is not the doer, but is the person or thing being done to: The book was read by Bob. Here, “the book” is the grammatical subject, but it is not doing the reading; rather reading is being done to it (by Bob). So we can see that passivity in a grammatical sense is similar to passivity in a literal sense.

Here’s another word that is closely related to passion, although the connection is not readily apparent: patience. Again, our perception of what this word means has degraded over time. Most people probably connect the word patience with waiting: when a child pesters his mother for something, she replies, “In a minute! Just be patient.” But patience doesn’t really mean waiting at all, but being willing to put up with something that irritates you (such as a child having to wait for something he wants). This is why “patience is a virtue.” (I’m pretty sure no one ever said “waiting is a virtue.”) And if we're really patient, we may also be impassive (unmoved by what we have to endure).

Now we’re getting closer to the root meaning that patience and passion share. But before we get to that (another little reprieve from Latin grammar), I’d like to remind you of another word that has been degraded to such an extent that its original meaning has almost been lost: to suffer. When we hear reference to suffering, we probably think immediately of pain. Pain, of course, is something that we want to avoid at all cost, isn’t it? But the meaning of this word does not indicate primarily (or originally) anything to do with pain. Let me hint at its real meaning by reminding you of a rather old-fashioned use of the verb, to suffer, found in the English version of the prayer called the Anima Christi:
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.
It’s pretty clear in this context that “suffer” means to allow or to permit: Don’t let me be separated from you.

In other words, “to suffer” can mean to allow to happen something that we’d prefer didn’t happen. This meaning is still preserved in the derivative term, sufferance. We might say, “His pig-headedness is beyond sufferance,” meaning we just can’t stand it. Or we might say, “The property owner reminded the sunbathers that they were at the private beach on sufferance and could be kicked out at any time,” which implies that the owner is allowing something that normally he would prohibit. Now we can see how the idea of suffering, in the sense of putting up with something that we’d rather not endure, gradually came to mean, specifically, undergoing pain, which nobody wants. But what we need to remember is that suffering simply means putting up with anything that we might prefer not to happen.

Sneaking up on the Latin grammar

Notice, if we suffer something in this sense, we are being patient. And if you’ll be patient just a bit longer, I’ll tie all this together. First, though, I’d like to go back to the Latin original of “Suffer me not to be separated from Thee”: Ne permittas me separari a te. Separari is the passive form of the infinitive separare, “to separate.” We’ve already talked about passive verbs, so it won’t surprise you to realize that separari means “to be separated.”

I mention this because the term we’re interested in, passion (as well as patience) is derived from a special kind of Latin verb known as a deponent. The present infinitive is pati; the present participle is patiens (whence cometh patience) and the past participle is passus. “Passion” is an Anglicized form of the Latin noun passio, which you can see is related to passus (so is “passive”).

Now, before I tie all this up in a nice bow, let me just mention how I got interested in this verb, pati. I came to the study of Latin somewhat late in life, after many years of studying modern romance languages. I knew that Latin would be more complicated than French or Spanish, but I was happy to find that much of what I had learned about the grammar of these modern languages was reflected in Latin grammar. The tenses of verbs (present, future, perfect and imperfect, etc.), the moods (indicative, subjunctive, etc.), the voices (active or passive) were familiar enough. But then I ran into something called a deponent verb, which messed with my mind. Why? Because a deponent verb is “passive in form but active in meaning.” Reading Latin is hard enough without running across a verb that looks like a passive but makes no sense if you try to translate it that way. Even more irritating, there are quite a few of these deponents, which means there are lots of opportunities for being confused.

But then I discovered the deponent, pati, and it all started to make sense. Why? Because pati is the perfect exemplar of deponents — what the grammar does is what the word means. What does the word mean, then? It means to undergo without resistance something that you’d rather not. It means to be patient, to be passive. In other words, it means to suffer, in the sense of undergoing something involuntarily.

How the Passion of Christ is like a deponent verb

The Taking of Christ, detail, Caravaggio
While his disciples resist passionately, Jesus submits willingly.
Are you wondering why I took such a circuitous route to get to the meaning of the word “passion” as it relates to Christ? Perhaps even now you are thinking with disgust, “What's the big deal? I could have told you to begin with that Christ’s passion means his suffering.” But perhaps by "suffering" you would have meant only that he underwent pain and humiliation. There's more to suffering than that — it's not merely something that happens to you willy-nilly. In Christ's case, at least, it is something he does, even though it looks like he is doing nothing. Passive in form, active in meaning.

Jesus suffered as a man, but he was almighty God. That means that, unlike you or me, he knew exactly what was in store for him — think of how many times he tried to warn his disciples, “but this saying was hid from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” Think of the hours he spent on the Mount of Olives contemplating what was about to happen, agonizing, sweating blood — all because he knew what was coming and chose not to avoid it. “Let this cup pass from me … yet not my will but Thine be done.”

His human weakness was crying out for it not to happen, but his Divine will permitted it. The betrayal, the mockery, the confusion, the spitting, the humiliation, the cruelty, the torture, the death. Because, despite appearances, this was what would turn everything right. This, ultimately, was the point of it all. He was the man born to die. His purpose was fulfilled by willingly submitting to all the cruelty and indignity that the world could heap on him. He suffered himself to be betrayed by Judas, he suffered himself to be doubted and denied by his closest associates, he suffered himself to be stripped and bloodied and executed among thieves and murderers. He continues to suffer Himself to be misunderstood by believers and reviled by unbelievers.

So, yes, his Passion is his suffering. But we must understand what it meant for Christ to suffer. And we must think about the strength of will required for that suffering. If we do so, we will better appreciate the Anima Christi when we pray:
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.
And now you know how the Passion of Christ is like a deponent verb: Passive in form, active in meaning.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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