Introduction


The Passion of Christ is the story of Jesus Christ's arrest, trial and suffering.  It ends with his execution by crucifixion.  The Passion is an episode in a longer story and cannot be properly understood without the story of the Resurrection.  The word Passion comes from the Latin word for suffering.

The crucifixion of Jesus is accepted by many scholars as an actual historical event. It is recorded in the writings of Paul, the Gospels, Josephus, and the Roman historian Tacitus. 

Most versions of the Passion begin with the events in the Garden of Gethsemane. Some also include the Last Supper, while some writers begin the story as early as Palm Sunday,when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the applause of the crowds.

The Passion is a story about injustice, doubt, fear, pain and, ultimately, degrading death. It tells how God experienced these things in the same way as ordinary human beings.  The most iconic image of the Passion is the - crucifix, Christ in his last agony on the cross - found in statues and paintings, in glass, stone and wooden images in churches, and in jewellery.

Spiritually, the Passion is the perfect example of suffering, which is one of the pervasive themes of the Christian religion.  Suffering is not the only theme of the Passion, although Christ's suffering and the wounds that he suffered play a great part in humanity from sin.  Another is the incarnation - the death of Jesus shows humanity that God had become truly human and that he was willing to undergo every human suffering, right up to the final agony of death. Another is obedience - despite initial, and very human, reluctance and fear, Jesus demonstrates his total acquiescence to God's wishes.

But the final theme is victory - the victory of Christ over death - and this is why the Passion story is inseparable from the story of the Resurrection.

The story of the Passion

The elements of the Passion story are these:

               The Last Supper

               The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane

               The Arrest of Jesus after his betrayal by Judas

               The Examination and condemnation of Jesus by the Jews

               The Trial before Pilate during which Jesus is sentenced to be whipped and crucified

               The Crucifixion of Jesus

The Last Supper

Jesus and the disciples share a last meal together.  The Last Supper was a Passover meal.  During the meal Jesus blesses and breaks bread, which he gives to the disciples saying "Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me".  After the meal Jesus blesses some wine and gives it to the disciples saying "Drink this; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in remembrance of me".  This event is the foundation of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist (Mass).  During the meal Jesus predicts that he will be betrayed by one of those sharing the meal with him, and that another of the disciples will disown him.

The Agony in the Garden

After supper Jesus goes with the disciples to spend the night in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus asks God if he can escape his fate..."Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."  Despite this prayer he willingly submits to God's will and continues to prepare himself. God sends an angel to give Jesus strength for the ordeal.  He continues to pray and his distress is such that 'his sweat was like drops of blood'.  The disciples who Jesus asked to wait with him fell asleep; even his closest friends left him to suffer alone.

Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested 

A group of armed men, sent by the Jewish authorities, arrives in the Garden to arrest Jesus.  Judas betrays Jesus by identifying him with a kiss - the signal he had arranged beforehand.  Peter, one of the disciples, takes a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the arresting party. The disciple believes that he is trying to protect Jesus, but by doing so he abandons Jesus' teaching against violence.  Jesus forbids further violence and heals the injured man.  The disciples run away and Jesus is taken away.

Jesus is tried by Jewish officials

Jesus is questioned in front of a group of Jewish religious leaders.  Caiaphas, the Chief Priest of the Temple wanted to destroy Jesus before he caused a rebellion that would bring down the comfortable world of the Temple and enraging the Roman authorities.  During questioning Jesus says enough for the Romans to see him as a rebel, and the Jews to regard him as a blasphemer.  However the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus.

The Jewish authorities had several reasons for being angry with Jesus:

               Jesus had challenged their authority - earlier in the week Jesus had gone to the Temple and protested against the moneychangers, as a symbolic denunciation of all the injustices the Temple stood for.

               Jesus was reinterpreting Jewish Law.

               Jesus was breaking the laws concerning the Sabbath.

               Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, a claim which the authorities thought blasphemous.

               The claim to be Messiah suggested that Jesus was preparing some sort of rebellion - probably against the Roman government. Such a revolt would endanger the relationship between Roman and Jewish authorities. (In those days the Messiah was expected to be a royal figure who would defeat the enemies of God and cleanse or rebuild the temple, and perhaps also bring God's justice to the world.)

Jesus is tried by Pilate

Jesus is tried by Pontius Pilate,the Roman governor, on a charge of treason.  The Jewish authorities were not authorised to execute people, so they needed to transfer the case to the Roman authorities.  Pilate is not convinced that Jesus is guilty of a capital crime and suggests that it would be sufficient to flog him.  The crowd objects to this and demands that Jesus be killed. Pilate gives in and sentences Jesus to be flogged first and then executed by crucifixion.  Although the Gospels paint Pilate as a weak man who ignores justice rather than stand against the crowd, other sources say that he was tough and authoritarian, and unlikely to have been pushed around by anyone.  Pilate was eventually ordered back to Rome and tried for the cruel way he treated the people under his government.

The crucifixion

Jesus is whipped and then, to mock the claim that he is 'King of the Jews', given a crown of thorns and dressed in a purple robe. Jesus carries his cross to the place of crucifixion, helped by Simon of Cyrene.  The crucifixion takes place at a location called Calvary or Golgotha.  Jesus is stripped and nailed to the Cross. Above his head is placed a sign that says 'King of the Jews'. Two criminals are crucified alongside him.  After some hours the soldiers check that Jesus is dead by stabbing him in the side. Blood and water gush out.  Jesus' body is taken down and buried.

Sources for the story

The Gospels

The Passion story is told in the 4 Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible, (Mark 14-15, Matthew 26-27, Luke 22-23, and John 18-19). 

Many would say that the Gospels are not primarily a historical record of what happened because:

               they were written between 40 and 70 years after the death of Jesus

               those who wrote them were not present at the events they described.

               the oral tradition allowed the narrative to be reshaped as it was passed on.

               the Gospels differ on some of the events

               the purpose of the Gospels is not to provide an accurate record of the historical events of Christ's last days but to record the spiritual truth of Jesus Christ.  

The Gospels are a combination of historical fact with theological reflection on the meaning and purpose of Christ's life and death.  They also look back to show how Christ's suffering and death followed the prophecies of the Old Testament in order to demonstrate that he was the long-expected Messiah.  The Gospel accounts of the Passion are very simple; other accounts of Christ's suffering and death have embellished the story with additional details.

Historical sources

The historical evidence for the Crucifixion supports the bare facts of Jesus' death on the Cross, but little else.  Around 60 years after the death of Jesus the Jewish historian Josephus wrote: "At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of astounding deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth gladly. He won a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin.  When Pilate, because of an accusation made by our leaders, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. Up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.  Testimonium Flavium, as edited in R. Joseph Hoffmann, Gerald A. Larue, Jesus in History and Myth, 1986

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in his Annals that:  "Christus, from whom their name [Christians] is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius..."  Tacitus, Annals

Other religious sources

Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ used another influential account; The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is based on the visions of the German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824).  Emmerich believed she had seen Christ's suffering - and her visions added to the Gospel version of the story. So for example, where the Gospels merely refer to Jesus being flogged, Emmerich adds much more detail.

Seven Last Words

The Seven Last Words refer to Jesus' final seven utterances spoken from the Cross:

               Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34)

               I tell you this; today you shall be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43) 

               Mother, there is your son. Son, there is your mother (John 19:26)

               My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)

               I thirst (John 19:28)

               It is finished (John 19:30)

               Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46)

The Seven Last Words formed the basis of a famous composition by Haydn. Composed in 1786, it was first performed on Good Friday 1787 in Cadiz, Spain.  Each of the work's seven sections is based on one of Jesus' final utterances. Haydn described the piece as...

purely instrumental music divided into seven Sonatas, each Sonata lasting seven or eight minutes, together with an opening Introduction and concluding with a Terremoto or Earthquake. These Sonatas are composed on, and appropriate to, the Words that Christ our Saviour spoke on the Cross...

Each Sonata, or rather each setting of the text, is expressed only by instrumental music, but in such a way that it creates the most profound impression on even the most inexperienced listener.

Stations of the Cross

The Stations of the Cross are numbered stages in the events of the Passion, from the condemnation of Jesus to the placing of his body in the tomb.  The Stations of the Cross are often found in churches as a series of statues or other works of art placed along the walls or on pillars.  Christians can use the Stations of the Cross as the basis for a structured meditation on the last hours of Christ's life.  The Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) takes the faithful on a journey through the final stages of the Passion, as explained here:

In the Via Crucis, various strands of Christian piety coalesce: the idea of life being a journey or pilgrimage; as a passage from earthly exile to our true home in Heaven; the deep desire to be conformed to the Passion of Christ; the demands of following Christ, which imply that his disciples must follow behind the Master, daily carrying their own crosses.  Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 2001

The guidance note reminds worshippers that the Via Crucis   should conclude, however, in such fashion as to leave the faithful with a sense of expectation of the resurrection in faith and hope.

There are fourteen Stations of the Cross:

1.            Jesus is condemned by Pilate

2.            Jesus carries the Cross

3.            Jesus falls

4.            Jesus meets Mary, his mother

5.            Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the Cross

6.            Veronica wipes Jesus' face

7.            Jesus falls again

8.            Women weep

9.            Jesus falls again

10.        Jesus is stripped

11.        Jesus is nailed to the Cross

12.        The death of Jesus

13.        Removal from the Cross

14.        Jesus is put in the tomb

The Five Precious Wounds

The Five Precious (or Sacred) Wounds are the wounds in the hands, feet and side of Christ that were inflicted at the Crucifixion.  These wounds have been the subject of spiritual devotion, mostly among Roman Catholics, for many centuries.  A number of churches are dedicated to the Five Precious Wounds, and many prayers have been written on the theme.  Some altars are decorated with five crosses - one in the centre and one at each corner - to represent the Five Precious Wounds.

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