Friday, April 3, 2009


The unique Style of the Passion Stories

Each Palm Sunday and again on Good Friday the church invites us to participate in the dramatic reading of one of the gospel accounts of Jesus' passion and death. You will notice that the passion accounts are much more extensive than other parts of the gospels (e.g. Mark's gospel contains only 16 chapters, but 7 of them describe Jesus' passion and death). The literary style is different, too, giving an unusual amount of detail and dialogue compared to the spare style used in the miracle stories and parables.

Right from the beginning of each gospel everything seems to be keyed toward the events of Holy Week. For example, Mark tells us that on the second day of Jesus' public life he is already being accused of a capital crime: some men let their paralyzed friend down through the roof to get to Jesus; "when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts,‘ Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! (Mk 2:5-7)" In Matthew, even before John the Baptist points out Jesus as the Lamb of God he points to the major players in Christ's passion and death: "But when [John] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come" (Mt 3:7)? The cross casts its long shadow forward into every chapter of the gospels.

Why is the Passion Written in a Different Style?
It is good to remind ourselves why these accounts are given such special treatment. First, the passion accounts were the heart of the Christian message, so of course people were eager to hear as many details as possible. These were almost certainly the first Christian stories to take on a consistent form, and were likely used in the earliest Christian worship services. From these facts alone we could predict that the literary style of the passion accounts would be different from other later gospel stories.

Another reason for the unusual length and detail of the passion stories is that the early church had to explain how such an unusual, unexpected turn of events could have happened: the Messiah was not supposed to get executed as a common criminal, was he? How could this have happened? What could it mean? Answering these questions took more space and more detail than other sections of the gospels.

A third reason for the length and detail of the passion stories was this: at the time that the gospels were being written down, Christians were undergoing intense persecution: ostracized and persecuted by the Jewish leaders they were banned from temple and synagogue, while at the same time they were also being hunted and imprisoned by Roman authorities. The passion accounts, then, were written especially to comfort and encourage Christians who were suffering through difficult times. The readers of the gospels could identify their sufferings with those of the Savior and find consolation in the fact that he too had suffered persecution, torture and even death.

Stories for Troubled Times

The idea that the passion narratives were written for people who were suffering through difficult times should speak to each of us this Holy Week. Many of us are experiencing extraordinary difficulties and suffering because of the economic recession, while others are dealing with illness or other personal difficulties, or perhaps we know close family and friends who are suffering. As we come together as the People of God to listen to the passion being proclaimed, we can feel solidarity not only with our brothers and sisters in the congregation or around the world, but also with our mothers and fathers in the faith who were the first to hear those sacred words, and who must have found in them consolation in the midst of their suffering, strength in the face of discouragement, and a promise of new and eternal life even in the face of death itself.

REFLECTION. The second of the reasons why the gospels give extra attention to the passion and death of Jesus is that "the early church had to try to explain how such an unusual, unexpected turn of events could have happened: the Messiah was not supposed to get executed as a common criminal, was he?" Have you ever found yourself expressing your disappointment over ruined dreams or spoiled plans with with expressions such as "My marriage wasn't supposed to end this way!" "My little granddaughter wasn't supposed to be born with multiple handicaps." "I'm at the height of my career; I'm not supposed to get cancer!" Spend some time with the passion narratives and feel the devastating disappointment the first Christians must have felt in the face of the mystery of Calvary: The Messiah is not supposed to be tortured and killed! -- Is he?

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