Good Friday 2017 – Jesus: “the passive object of an active verb”.
I was a member of the team at Loyola House, our Jesuit spirituality centre in Guelph, Ontario, in the 1990s. On most Good Fridays we acted out a mime version of the events of the Pascal Triduum for the retreatants. A member of the team who had studied theology in California brought the production back. I'm not usually drawn to such things, but this was really striking in its beauty and simplicity. Several of us were involved, playing the major actors of the Gospel events from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday.
I was reluctant, mainly because I don't consider myself a good actor. My reluctance heightened, because the team wanted me to portray Jesus in the mime. The reasons had nothing to do with my holiness or ability to act, but because I weighed less than the other members of the team. Jesus has to be lifted several times during the production.
However, it turned out that the role of Jesus was the easiest role. To use the words of Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, a former Superior General of the Jesuits, Jesus, in the Passion, is the "passive object of an active verb." I taught Grade 9 English grammar for two years, so I know what that means!
Kolvenbach's point is that things are done to Jesus, not by Jesus. Jesus is the passive recipient of the actions of others. The Prophet Isaiah sums it up: "Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before it's shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." So, my role in the mime was exceedingly easy. I had almost no actions to remember. If someone like Pilate or Herod wanted me, others came to get me. If the soldiers wanted to hang me on the cross, they just grabbed me.
It may seem like a simple insight, but the passive nature of Jesus in the Passion is the key to so much in our lives. It's passivity, but it's not a kind of docility whereby Jesus gives up his engagement with life and the power of God in his life. There is a subtle distinction. The Psalmist says in today's Celebration of the Lord's Passion: "Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit."
It may be physically passive, but it is far from giving up. It's the freedom Jesus experienced after his spiritual struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s the freedom felt by many martyrs. Jesus says, “not my will but yours be done.” Martyrs so often say to the executioners, you can take my body, but you’ll never possess my spirit.
Let's take an example from human life. Someone is diagnosed with a devastating illness. After a struggle with it, involving prayer and conversation with the medical personnel and with those close to oneself, a person may come to a deeper understanding and acceptance of what is happening to their body. They don’t like the disease, but they may experience a deeper trust of those trying to provide care, whether physical, emotional or spiritual.
This doesn't mean the illness disappears, but it means that the person reaches a place of deeper peace. There is plenty of evidence that a person at peace is going to respond more positively to treatment, such as surgery or medication. We can't make ourselves feel that peace, but we can dispose ourselves for it. Prayer, trusting conversations and appropriate reading all help develop that interior disposition.
Or, think of parents who are faced with a child who has taken on a way of life that runs counter to everything they taught her in life. She has developed a substance abuse and is probably sleeping around. The parents have tried everything to help their daughter, all to no avail. They have provided therapists, residential treatment programs, and the constant love and acceptance of parents. Now it looks as if their daughter will face prison time, for stealing to support her addiction. They are at wit's end and know that there is nothing else they can do.
They do a spiritual retreat for a few days. It leads to a level of peace that they have not had for years. They come to a new acceptance of their daughter's situation. This is not a simple acceptance, as in, "This must be God's will." Rather, it's a peace that leads to a deeper trust that God is with them and will not abandon them, nor their daughter. Is that so radically different from the words of Jesus as he dies, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." On this Good Friday, let us pray for the grace to imitate the trust and acceptance of Jesus.