By Greg Garrett
2015 Lenten Meditation, Week 6
“What do you do?” is one of the most-heard questions of our adult lives. We define ourselves—and others place us into boxes—based on our answers.
“What do you do?” often gets mistaken for “Who are you?” We look at ourselves and what we do, and we tell others the type of person we think that makes us. We look at the lives of others and see what they do, and we make the same sorts of assumptions.
Is it any wonder we are drawn to do so much, that we find it next to impossible to simply be, that it actually feels awful to think that others control our destiny?
Jesus meets us in this strange place between doing and being in the Passion narrative. He has spent the entirety of his public ministry doing. In the early parts of the Gospel of Mark, especially, Jesus possesses this frenetic energy, where all he seems to be doing is walking, talking, moving, healing (“And then he did that. And then he did this.”).
But now, no matter what gospel record we read, Jesus is no longer defined by doing. He is taken captive, put on trial, forced into a passivity that becomes more about who Jesus is than what he does. (The Gospel of John represents an interesting exception to this: In that gospel’s Passion narrative, Jesus is simultaneously a prisoner and in control of everything, including his execution, but it’s still part and parcel of that particular writer’s theological lesson about who Jesus is, and waiting is still a part of it.)
Our fellow parishioner Joe Barry has been my spiritual director for the past decade. He talks to me a lot about doing and being. He has often reminded me that what we do is not the most important thing we can claim for ourselves. We are so often in motion, so bent on defining ourselves by that motion, that we don’t pay attention to our essences. Who are we when we have to sit and wait?
In a selection from Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, Henri Nouwen speaks of having just such a question directed at him from a friend with cancer, and it led Nouwen back toward the Passion narrative as well:
As we talked I realized that he and many others were constantly thinking, “How much can I still do?” Somehow this man had learned to think about himself as a man who was worth only what he was doing. And so when he got sick, his hope seemed to rest on the idea that he might get better and return to what he had been doing. If the spirit of this man was dependent on how much he would still be able to do, what did I have to say to him?…
The central word in the story of Jesus’ arrest is one I never thought much about. It is “to be handed over.” That is what happened in Gethsemane. Jesus was handed over. Some translations say that Jesus was “betrayed,” but the Greek says he was “handed over.” Judas handed Jesus over (see Mark 14:10). But the remarkable thing is that the same word is used not only for Judas but also for God. God did not spare Jesus, but handed him over to benefit us all (see Romans 8:32).
So this word, “to be handed over,” plays a central role in the life of Jesus. Indeed, this drama of being handed over divides the life of Jesus radically in two. The first part of Jesus’ life is filled with activity. Jesus takes all sorts of initiatives. He speaks; he preaches; he heals; he travels. But immediately after Jesus is handed over, he becomes the one to whom things are being done. He’s being arrested; he’s being led to the high priest; he’s being taken before Pilate; he’s being crowned with thorns; he’s being nailed on a cross. Things are being done to him over which he has no control. That is the meaning of passion – being the recipient of other people’s initiatives.
It is important for us to realize that when Jesus says, “It is accomplished,” he does not simply mean, “I have done all the things I wanted to do.” He also means, “I have allowed things to be done to me that needed to be done to me in order for me to fulfill my vocation.” Jesus does not fulfill his vocation in action only but also in passion. He doesn’t just fulfill his vocation by doing the things the Father sent him to do, but also by letting things be done to him that the Father allows to be done to him, by receiving other people’s initiatives.
Passion is a kind of waiting – waiting for what other people are going to do. Jesus went to Jerusalem to announce the good news to the people of that city. And Jesus knew that he was going to put a choice before them: Will you be my disciple, or will you be my executioner? There is no middle ground here. Jesus went to Jerusalem to put people in a situation where they had to say “Yes” or “No.” That is the great drama of Jesus’ passion: he had to wait upon how people were going to respond. How would they come? To betray him, or to follow him? In a way, his agony is not simply the agony of approaching death. It is also the agony of having to wait.
As we come to the end of Lent and enter into Holy Week, we have this last opportunity to sit and reflect and be before we launch ourselves back into the everyday of doing, and as always, Jesus provides us with a model.
Who are you? In the Markan passion narrative, the high priest asks Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?” and Jesus responds, “I AM.”
The Passion has taken away his ability to act—but allowed him to proclaim and maybe even to realize who he is, the son of the Blessed One.
It also offers us a chance to proclaim and to realize. As Nouwen says, we are all faced with decisions. Will we say yes or no to the Good News? Are we apostles, or are we betrayers? If someone asks, will we own our deepest and most important identities (that have nothing to do with doing!), sons and daughters of the Blessed One?