The Riddle of the Passion

Have you ever wondered why we call Christ’s suffering his Passion? It’s a question worth digging into.

IN DEFERENCE TO HOLY WEEK, I’m taking a break from ancient epic this week to consider the Passion of Christ. I wonder how many Catholics ever stop to wonder why we use the word “passion” to describe the brutal treatment Our Lord endures in the hours leading to his death? It’s a question worth asking, because the answer will make us think more deeply not only about the events that we call “the Passion of Christ” but also about how we can imitate Him by being patient. Right now, I’m going to ask you to be patient, while I engage in a little etymology and grammar. (Don’t cringe! You’re going to love this.)

Meanwhile, if you know a little about the Latin language, here’s a riddle for you: how is the Passion of Christ like a deponent verb? By the end of this essay, you’ll have the answer.

Moved by Passion

Usually, when we speak of “passion” in ordinary conversation, we mean something like “an overriding desire or interest,” as in “riding dirt bikes is my passion.” I’ve often had college students tell me that they want to choose a major that they are “passionate” about, meaning simply something they are really interested in.

Captain Kirk, in an alternate universe, was ruled by his passions

This idea that “passion” indicates intense interest is a watered-down version of an older sense of the term: passion as an emotion that is so powerful that it overwhelms us, takes control of us, makes us do things we wouldn’t do if we were being calm and rational. Anger, lust, fear are “passions” in this sense. We used to refer to “crimes of passion,” meaning crimes committed in the heat of the moment, when a person acts under the impulse of overwhelming emotion that temporarily shorts out rational control—a kind of “temporary insanity” that diminishes moral culpability. This notion seems to have lost its force in the legal sphere, although it remains important in the moral sphere, for instance in considering whether a grave sin is fully intentional (mortal), or whether the sinner’s guilt is mitigated by factors beyond the control of the will (see CCC 1857 ff).

If you look for the term “passion” in the Bible, almost every reference to passion, except one (Acts 1:3), uses the term in this sense of an overwhelming impulse or desire (almost always one that should be resisted), as in Proverbs 14:30, which counsels against rash anger: “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.” Another example is found in Romans 6:12, which refers to the passions as ruling our fleshly nature: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” (These examples are from the RSV-CE; other translations may vary.)

Since ancient times, the strong emotions we call “the passions” have been understood as a danger to good behavior. Greek and Roman philosophy advised that our rational faculties should govern our actions, rather than letting the passions get the upper hand. In fact, this ability to be governed by reason rather than the passions was considered the principle way that humans differ from, and are superior to, mere animals. The Christian view, which recognizes free will as another distinguishing factor, agrees with this philosophical idea. Paragraph 1761 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the passions :

In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, “either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way.” It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason.

CCC 1761

In the Catholic understanding, then, we must not give in to our passions. We have to exert our self-control to keep them in check.

Unmoved: A Different Kind of Passion

Still, “passion” in this sense seems to have little to do with Christ’s Passion. If we picture Christ in the final hours of his life, we won’t see a man behaving “passionately.” In fact, what is remarkable is how meekly he accepts being betrayed, arrested, subjected to a series of show trials, being beaten, insulted, spat upon, made a public spectacle, and finally tortured to death. Yet, through it all, he remains dispassionate, unmoved by anger or terror. Anyone else surely would have put up some kind of a fight or at least have denounced his accusers “passionately.” Yet Jesus did not. “As a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.”

So what’s going on with this word, passion? Are perhaps these two uses of the word false cognates, identical in form but derived from different roots? Actually, no. Rather the opposite is true—they are the same word, with the same essential meaning, but because of the way attitudes toward “the passions” (emotions) have changed over time, the connection between the two has gotten lost.

To see the connection, we need to get back to the etymological root from which this term sprang. But since doing so involves some discussion of Latin grammar that will probably make your eyes glaze over, I’m going to spend a little time digging around the roots to aerate the soil a little first.

It may help if first we think about some words that are closely related to “passion,” such as “passive.” Being passive means letting things happen to you without doing anything about it. If you are passive, whatever happens to you, you just put up with it; you certainly don’t give in to your passions. We often think of passivity as a negative trait—if someone is too passive, don’t you sometimes want to prod them, just to see if you can get a reaction?

A Little Help From Grammar

Traditionally, art depicts Christ enduring patiently, impassively

We don’t usually think of a passive person as being active — in fact, passivity and activity are opposites, at least in the sphere of grammar. If you were lucky enough to have been taught grammar in school, you may recall that in a declarative sentence (i.e., one that makes a statement), the verb can be passive or active. Here’s an example of a statement with an active very: “Bob built a bookcase.” “Bob” is both the grammatical subject of the sentence and the one doing the action described (“built”); when the same noun is both the subject of the sentence and the one doing the action described, the verb is said to be active. The same meaning, however, can be conveyed with a passive construction: “The bookcase was built by Bob.” “The bookcase” is now the grammatical subject of the sentence and the verb is said to be passive, because the subject is not actually doing the action described by the verb. In other words, in the passive sentence the subject is not doing anything but having something done to it.

Before I drive all of this home, let’s look at another word that is closely related to “passion,” although the connection is not readily apparent: patience. Most people probably connect the word patience with waiting: for instance, when a child pesters his mother for something, she might reply, “In a minute! Just be patient.” But being patient/having patience doesn’t mean waiting at all; it means being willing to put up with something that is happening against your will (a child having to wait for something he wants). Being patient means keeping control of yourself, not of the thing happening to you. This is why “patience is a virtue.” (I’m pretty sure no one ever said “waiting is a virtue.”) And a truly patient child won’t kick up a fuss by having to wait — he will not give in to his passions. Instead, he will be impassive (unmoved by the wait he has to endure).

The Meaning of Suffering

Now we’re getting closer to the root meaning that patience and passion share. But there is still one more thing I’d like to point out as I dig around the roots of these words, and that’s another word that is often associated with patience: suffering. This is another word whose original meaning has gotten lost over time. Today, when someone mentions suffering, we probably think immediately of pain. However, the meaning of this word does not indicate primarily (or originally) anything to do with pain. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “He does not suffer fools gladly,” meaning “He doesn’t like to put up with fools” or “He can’t bear fools.” The same old-fashioned use of the verb “to suffer” is found in a familiar English version of the prayer called the Anima Christi: “Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.” It’s pretty clear in this context that “suffer” means to allow or permit: another translation of the same prayer says, “Never let me be separated” etc.

Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.

Anima Christi prayer

In other words, “to suffer” can mean to allow something to happen that we’d prefer to avoid. This meaning is still preserved in a derivative term, sufferance. For instance, we might say, “His pig-headedness is beyond sufferance,” meaning we just can’t put up with it. Or we might say, “The property owner reminded the sunbathers that they were at the private beach on sufferance and could be kicked out at any time,” which implies that the owner is allowing something that normally he would prohibit. Now we can see how the idea of suffering, in the sense of putting up with something that we’d rather not endure, gradually came to mean, specifically, undergoing pain, which nobody wants. The main thing we need to keep in mind is that suffering simply means putting up with anything that we might prefer not to happen.

Latin Deponents

Notice that if we suffer something in this sense we are being patient. And if you’ll be patient just a bit longer, I’ll tie all this together. But not quite yet. I’m going to try your patience a bit further by wading into some Latin etymology and grammar.

In the Latin original of the Anima Christi prayer “Suffer me not to be separated from Thee” is Ne permittas me separari a te. As the underlining shows, separari is Latin for “to be separated.” Grammatically, separari is the passive form of the active infinitive separare, “to separate.” In this particular verb, the -i ending indicates the passive infinitive, while the -e ending indicates the active infinitive. (In a similar way, in English “to be –ed” indicates passive infinitive while the active is simply “to –“).

I mention this because I want to be maddeningly pedantic, but because Latin source of the key term we’re interested in, passion (as well as related words such as patience) is a special kind of Latin verb known as a deponent. The present active infinitive of this verb is pati; the present participle is patiens (whence cometh patience in English) and the past participle is passus. “Passion” is an Anglicized form of the Latin noun passio, which you can see is related to passus (so is “passive”).

Now, before I tie all this up in a nice bow, let me just mention how I became interested in this verb, pati. I came to study Latin somewhat late in life, after many years of studying modern romance languages. I knew that Latin would be more complicated than French or Spanish, but I was happy to find that much of what I had learned about the grammar of these modern Romance languages was similar to Latin grammar. For instance, the tenses of verbs (present, future, perfect and imperfect, etc.), the moods (indicative, subjunctive, etc.), the voices (active or passive) were familiar enough.

But then I ran into something called a deponent verb, which made my brain hurt. Why? Because a deponent verb is “passive in form but active in meaning.” It looks like a passive verb, but it is an active verb. Now, let me tell you, reading Latin is hard enough without running across a verb that looks like a passive form but makes no sense when you try to translate it that way. Even more irritating, there are quite a few of these deponents, which means there are lots of opportunities for being confused.

But then I discovered the one deponent verb, pati, that helped me make sense of it all. Why? Because pati means what the grammar does. What does pati mean? It means to endure or undergo without resistance. If you look it up in an online Latin dictionary, the English equivalent will probably be shown as “to suffer” — but in the special sense I pointed out above: to endure something against your will. It means being patient, being passive while something gets done to you.

Passive in Form, Active in Meaning

While his disciples resist passionately, Jesus remains passive and submits willingly.

Are you wondering why I took such a circuitous route to get to the meaning of the word “passion” as it relates to Christ? Perhaps even now you are thinking impatiently, “What’s the big deal? I could have told you to begin with that Christ’s passion means his suffering.” But perhaps by “suffering” you would have meant only that he underwent pain and humiliation. There’s more to suffering than that—it’s not merely something that happens to you willy-nilly. In Christ’s case, at least, it is something he does willingly, intentionally, even though it looks like he is doing nothing. His attitude is passive in form, but active in meaning.

Jesus suffered as a man, but he was Almighty God. That means that, unlike you or me, not only did he know exactly what was in store for Him, but He was ready for it. Think of how many times He tried to warn His disciples, but they just didn’t get it. Think of the hours He spent on the Mount of Olives contemplating what was about to happen, agonizing in his humanity, sweating blood—all because He knew what was coming and chose not to avoid it. “Let this cup pass from me … yet not my will but Thine be done.”

His human weakness was crying out for it not to happen, but His Divine will permitted it. The betrayal, the mockery, the confusion, the spitting, the humiliation, the cruelty, the torture, the death. Because, despite appearances, this was what would make everything right. This, ultimately, was the point of his becoming Man to begin with. He was the man born to die. His purpose was fulfilled by willingly submitting to all the cruelty and indignity that the world could heap on him. He suffered (willingly allowed) Himself to be betrayed by Judas, He suffered Himself to be doubted and denied by his closest associates, He suffered Himself to be stripped and bloodied and executed among thieves and murderers. He continues to suffer Himself to be misunderstood by believers and reviled by unbelievers.

So, yes, His Passion is His suffering. But we must understand what it meant for Christ to suffer. And we must think about the strength of will — the love — required for that suffering. If we do so, we will better appreciate the Anima Christi when we pray:

Passion of Christ, strengthen me. . . .

Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.

And now you know why the Passion of Christ is like a deponent verb: Passive in form, active in meaning.

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