The Narrative of the Passion

Anthony Zimmerman
Special to
May 4, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

The early Christians likely celebrated Holy Week and Easter at the time when the Jews celebrated the already outdated Passover. It is likely that the narrative of the Passion took its beginnings at these annual celebrations. 

When we celebrate Holy Week we join not only a billion Catholics who form the Mystical Body of Christ here on earth, but also the suffering souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven. Together we recall what Christ did for us and thank Him for His heroic passion and death through which He washed away our sins and reconciled us to Himself and to the Father.

The fact that the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so much alike probably indicates that its basic form is from the beginning of the Church. The early Christians must have kept the Passover on the dates of the Old Testament but gave it a new form in which they commemorated the passion and death of Christ. Instead of slaying and sacrificing a sacrificial lamb, they celebrated the Holy Eucharist. The reading of the narrative of Christ’s passion and death may have had its beginnings at Holy Week and Easter celebrations, with Peter presiding and the first disciples in attendance. The readings would recall to their minds what they themselves had seen and heard.

Perhaps Mary supplied some of the details of the narrative as found in the Gospels. She would remember what Jesus said from the cross: "Father, forgive them." She may have supplied the names of the women who stood at a distance from the cross and were faithful to the end. She may have related how Jesus said to her, nodding toward John: "Woman, behold they son." John may have added how He also said, "Behold thy mother." Very early, then, a narrative of the passion and death took form, and the four evangelists eventually put their separate versions into writing.

Peter, presiding at the Eucharist, would hear again about his hour of shame; how he had bragged that he would never desert Jesus, but how he had done just that, and had done it three times, even swearing a false oath. The early Christians may have looked at him thinking: "How could you do that?"

Then Jesus said to them, "You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee." Peter declared to him, "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away." Jesus said to him, "Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." Peter said to him, "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you." And so said all the disciples.

Did Peter object against the reading which highlighted his boasting, and then his cowardice? He could likely have done so had he wanted his shame to be covered up. But it is likely Peter himself made sure that his braggadoglio and fiasco must become a part of the Gospel for the whole world to read until the end of time. We can believe this because the narrative has details that he alone would have known, for example, how Jesus turned to look at him just as the cock had crowed for the third time. How he then recalled the prophecy of Jesus, and found a corner where he was all by himself and there wept bitter tears. Our first Pope became a humble man after Jesus helped him to repent. The world must know how very weak he was, and how weak we all are, except for the grace of God.

In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus selected Peter, James and John to see Him at His worst, the same three whom He had selected to see Him at His best on Tabor. This time they would not see Him blazing in light, speaking with Moses and Elias, glorified by the voice of the Father; they would see Him instead dejected, sorrowful, near collapse unto death:

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsem'ane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here, while I go yonder and pray." And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zeb'edee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me." And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt."

And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done" (Mt 26:36-42).

But why did God insist that Jesus suffer so? Is there no other way than this? Than all this cruelty, this humiliation, this final defeat in death? Jesus knelt, and prayed, and struggled.

Blessed Mother Teresa used to speak often about this mystery. Her only answer, and her advice was always: "Pray as Jesus prayed 'Not my will but thine be done.’" God must know why evil events happen even if we do not know. How very bracing it is for ourselves, when we are in a similar agony, to say with Jesus: "Not my will but thine be done." Accepting the ways of God for ourselves, even in great difficulty, will always be best for us.

A great mystery occurred in the garden when Jesus offered His surrender to the Father. The Father was gratified that His Son, now man as well as God, agreed to the Father’s plan for the good of the world, and for the good also of His Son. God’s program for the cosmos and for our eventual entrance into heaven could now go forward. In Gethsemane Jesus had now accepted the Father’s plan. Finally Jesus rose from His knees and pressed forward to fulfill the mystery.

Then he came to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand." While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people.

Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him." And he came up to Jesus at once and said, "Hail, Master!" And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, "Friend, why are you here?" Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him.

When Peter saw the ruffians lay hands on Jesus, that was too much for him. He whipped out his sword "and struck the slave on the high priest, cutting off his ear." Luke makes that his right side ear. Peter was probably better at casting fish nets than at swordsmanship.

There might have been a battle, but Jesus stopped it with a swift command: "Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." Had He not stopped the fight, perhaps the band of eleven apostles might have been wiped out by the "very large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people."

Jesus said also to Peter: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me twelve legions of angels? But how, then, would the scriptures be fulfilled which say it must happen this way?" Jesus yielded without a fight. "Then all the disciples forsook him and fled." To stay with Him would likely had been dangerous. They were utterly confounded at the way Jesus was letting things happen. He did not call the legions of angels to zap the enemies; he even treated Judas with dignity; he addressed the ruffians to try to bring them to their senses; He meekly let Himself be captured and led off to Caiaphas the high priest. Why didn’t Jesus transform Himself here, as He had done on Mount Tabor? It was a mystery to the apostles, it is a mystery to us. Jesus was the Lamb of the Passover about to be offered to God. Greater mystery still: He was also the High Priest, offering Himself as Victim to the Father.

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father" (John 10:17-18).

Jesus, then, was offering Himself in accordance with the eternal plans of God. He now stood before Caiaphas for the trial. Caiaphas, of course, saw Jesus as a rival. If Jesus was the real High Priest appointed by God, then Caiaphas would have to resign. So Caiaphas rigged the trial. Witnesses told lies, lies, and more lies. But no two witnesses agreed, so none was valid. Jesus, through all this, remained silent. He would not stoop down to their level. That incensed the high priest who realized that all the contradictions were making a farce of the trial. It was time to step in. Craftily he drew his trump card: "I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Finally Jesus looked up and spoke:

Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven."

The response was a bomb-shell. So, He IS the Messiah indeed! Caiaphas knew the Scriptures, and knew that the response of Jesus referred to the Messianic passage of the Prophet Daniel:

As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened... I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:9-10; 13-14).

The ball was now in the court of Caiaphas. Would he, would the court, stop their wickedness, get down on their knees, and ask for mercy? That would have been the proper response. Instead, they willed to disbelieve and to pretend that they were right, and Jesus was wrong. Interestingly, we will all see that trial in reverse some day, at the Last Judgment. Then Jesus will preside, and Caiaphas and His hatchet-men will stand on trial. We will then see whether Jesus places them at His right to go to heaven; or to His left to go to hell.

Lest this writing become too long, we pass on to the final scene of the crucifixion. We bow our heads as we remember that it is we who crucified Christ by our sins. But we also rejoice that Christ took us to Himself and gave us grace to forgive our sins and to become adopted children of God, who will rejoice with Him in heaven.

The Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb he is led to the slaughter" (Isaiah 53:6-7).
We adore thee O Christ and we praise thee,
Because by thy holy cross thou has redeemed the world.