Passus Est

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I remember when I was a teenager, singing in the choir at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Verona, NY. We were one of the few choirs in the area that sang in Latin, thanks to Fr. Morelle’s reverence for the beauty of the Latin liturgy and the old sacred music.

(Incidentally, Fr. Morelle perfectly modeled for me the proper attitude towards the Latin Mass. While he personally loved the extraordinary form, he never entertained any nonsense about the novus ordo being “invalid” or incapable of reverent, beautiful celebration. When asked about it he simply said that he obeyed his bishop, and celebrated as reverently as he could the form he was given. Perhaps this is why I have never understood the tension between the advocates of the two forms in some Catholic circles. But I digress.)

At any rate, I had enough Latin in school to have a solid grasp of the roots of the words, enough, at any rate, to be able to translate the parts of the Mass into English as we sang them. After years of singing them, eventually I no longer needed to translate them. Instead I sang them, thought, heard them, and prayed them in the Church Latin. Perhaps my love affair with words and language of all kind aided in this.

All this by way of trying to explain the impact of the phrase “passus est” from the Credo. The extended phrase was “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est.” This is translated, “Crucified also for us, under Pontius Pilate, (he) suffered and buried was.”

To me the impact of the word “passus” was mind blowing. Taken in the same vein as my last post, it is even heart-shattering. Passus!

We translate the word as “to suffer,” but the translation loses something. Suffering tends to be an active verb, in English. “I suffer from delusions of erudition.” “You suffer from boredom.” “He she or it suffers me gladly to be a fool.” “Passus” however, has a passive connotation. The word “passive” comes from the same root. When I hear, “passus est” I do not hear something that Christ did, but something that was done to Him.

This is phenomenal! Christ is God! I take it from basic theology 101 that God is the primum mobile, the uncaused cause, the mover of all things. He is all action, actor, doing, being. It is His nature to be. He initiates, we respond. He acts, we are acted upon. He gives, we receive. I have had this truth fixed into my brain from my youth. I almost take it for granted.

And yet, “passus est!” We do not have a direct translation, since I cannot think of an English verb which could be the passive of “to suffer”. He was made to suffer. He was wounded. He was beaten. He was despised. He was rejected. All of these happened to Him. He was not acting. He was allowing His creatures to act upon Him. He let us do whatever we wanted to Him. He was passive. He allowed all these things to happen to Him.

The CREATOR BECAME A CREATURE, PEOPLE!!! How is it possible for anything to be the same ever again?

I may be going over old ground here. Very often I come upon (to me) startling new insights only to find that everyone else has been taking them for granted for a very long time. Of course, God came down to earth and suffered. It is just that the concept, the reality, of the incarnation is so truly mindblowing that whenever I am refocused on it it reshapes something in me.

Shusaku Endo got this, I think. His novel “Silence” asks hard questions about the nature of a God who is silence in the face of so much suffering. Only the cross makes sense of it. The power and silence of a God “somewhere out there” is of no help or comfort to the Catholic’s being tortured in 16th century Japan. The only possible answer lies in the vulnerability of the God who became a creature, and became helpless.

Jesus on the cross. He appears so vulnerable (even the word “vulnerable” comes from the Latin “vulnerus” meaning to be wounded.) He hangs there passively allowing, suffering, His creatures to do unto Him whatever they want, whether we want to kill Him, or spit on Him, or worship Him, or love Him. Amazing! God be praised. But in the End He not only suffers the death to happen to Him, but actively embraces it and gives up His spirit.

Blessed be He!

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