Why Do We Call It “The Passion?”

I grew up among Jehovah's Witnesses and we never referred to Jesus' death as the "Lord's Passion."  I can remember hearing the parents of my Christian friends talk about attending a "Passion Play" in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and wondering what kind of play they were describing.  I soon realized they were talking about a play that re-enacted the death of Jesus Christ and I wondered how such a terrible event could possibly be referred to as "The Passion". 

It was a Legal Transaction

Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) viewed Jesus' death as a "ransom" that was paid for us.  It was mostly a legal transaction.  Adam, a perfect human son of God, lost everlasting life for us by sinning in the Garden of Eden.  Therefore, Jehovah sent His son, Jesus, another perfect human, to die on the torture stake (for the JWs, it is not a cross) to pay for that which was lost by Adam.  The belief is that had Adam not sinned we would still be living in a "paradise earth" today.

When describing the death of our Lord in their publications, the Jehovah's Witnesses oftentimes show the scales of justice being out of balance before Jesus' death and then coming back into balance after Jesus' death.  They believe that since Adam as a perfect human lost everlasting life, that all that was needed to balance the scales of justice was for another perfect human, Jesus, to die faithful to God.  To them Jesus is not God incarnate but merely a perfect human creature, no more and no less.  The Jehovah's Witnesses emphasize that God demands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and that Jesus' death satisfied this demand.

 While Christian thought does talk about the legal aspect of Jesus' death, the JWs' overemphasis on the death of Jesus as a ransom, a mere legal transaction, coupled with the denial of Jesus' true nature as both God and man, has lead the them down a path of legalism. It inaccurately portrays the God of Christianity as the Almighty Accountant keeping track of all the debits (sins) and credits (works) of each person while granting everlasting life to only those few who get enough credits to deserve it.  What they lack is an understanding of the sacrificial aspect of our Lord's Passion.

It is a Sacrifice

The sacrificial aspect is certainly emphasized in genuine Christian thought.  Consider Abraham, who was told by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.  This event is considered a foreshadowing of the coming crucifixion of Christ.  This is one way we are taught in Scripture that the crucifixion of our Lord is sacrificial in nature.

In Abraham's time, it was common practice for the gods of the nations to demand that their worshippers sacrifice their firstborn to them as proof of their devotion to them or to obtain special favors.  So, when God requested this of Abraham, he was probably thinking that this was a "normal" thing for any god to demand.

In contrast, Yahweh made the point to Abraham and to all future generations of humans that He is a different God from the gods of the nations.  As Pope Benedict says in his encyclical God is Love, the Old Testament is unique in that it gives specific examples of the unpredictable acts of God toward His followers and the fact that God would sacrifice something for the benefit of his followers would certainly be an unprecedented act in the minds of our ancient fathers (God is Love Part I Paragraph 12).

Yahweh made the point through this encounter with Abraham and Isaac that He was going to show us, in the fullness of time, how much He loves us by sacrificing His Son for our sake.  As usual, Almighty Yahweh turns the tables on us and demonstrates that He is not afraid to do the dirty work to save us.  I am certain that Abraham left that encounter with God both relieved and in awe as to how different Yahweh is from the false gods of the nations of his time.

It is the Passion of Our Lord

In Pope Benedict's Encyclical God is Love, our Holy Father teaches us that the crucifixion of our Lord is a demonstration of the erotic or passionate love that God has for us.  He says the following:

"In the Old Testament, the novelty of the Bible did not consist merely in abstract notions but in God's unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity.  This divine activity now takes on dramatic form, in Jesus Christ, it is God Himself who goes in search of the 'stray sheep', a suffering and lost humanity" (God is Love Part I paragraph 12).

Jesus tells us about the nature of His mission and the passion (eros) of His love during his ministry by giving us the parables of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one lost one and the Father who runs out to meet his lost son.  (See Matthew 18:12-14 and Luke chapter 15.)

As our Holy Father says:

"The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts — an unprecedented realism" (God is Love Part I paragraph 12).

This unprecedented realism of God's passionate (erotic) love for us is demonstrated and fulfilled in God's culminating act of sacrificial (agape) love by His dying on the cross to save us.  In Jesus Christ, God comes searching for us, His lost sheep and begs and pleads with us to come home to Him.  His death on the cross gives us the way to come home as His Church is born through the outpouring of water and blood (the Sacraments) that flow from our Lord's side even today through the sacramental ministry of His Church.

Far from being a mere legalistic balancing of the scales of justice, as the Jehovah's Witnesses (and some Protestants also) emphasize, the Passion of the Lord is all about love, both a searching, passionate or erotic love and a sacrificial agape love.  I often point out to my Jehovah's Witness friends that their god loved us so much that he sent a mere creature to save us but that the Christian God is different in that He does all of the dirty work to save us Himself and this dirty work includes a most vile and painful manner of death, crucifixion.

The next time we encounter a Jehovah's Witness or any one else who has not experienced the authentic passion of Christ, let us pray that they will have an encounter with the authentic Jesus through us.  May they see that our passionate God is searching for them and that God has sacrificed Himself for them so that they might come home to His Church and spend eternity with Him.

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  • Guest

    Having a friend whose whole family, including herself, just drifted over to the Jehovah's Witnesses makes this a refreshing read.  I only pray that she may soon see the difference between God's radical, personal love for us and the notion that He did not become incarnate to save us.

    It is important to be aware of words and their connotations.  The term "Passion" was first used to refer to Our Lord's sufferings based on its link with the Latin word "pati", meaning "to suffer"; it was then expanded to refer to the sufferings of saints, then all suffering, and then expanded further to refer to strong emotion or desire.  "Erotic" is a dangerous word to use, as it almost always refers to sexual desire and cannot, therefore, help to describe the love God has for us.

    But it is a marvel just what Our Lord really did for us and how strongly He loves us–much more than we would dare to think.  I definitely plan to keep that in mind during Holy Week.

  • Guest

    There is a reason that St. John wrote "God is love" and not "God is justice".  While God is certainly just, God is above all love.  I had no idea that the Jehovah's witnesses missed this crucial point.



    The Pope very much wanted to take eros back (the greek root for erotic) and point out that God has a strong passion for His creatures.  The pope's goal is specifically to eliminate the notion that erotic can only connote sexual desire, as this limits the meaning of the word too much.