Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs


Thoughts on Presenting the Passion of the Lord

Some Thoughts on Presenting the Passion of the Lord
By Rev. David C. Michael, Associate Director, Archdiocese of Boston Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs

… What happened in Jesus’ passion cannot be charged against all the Jews without distinction then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new People of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the Word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.
- Vatican II “Declaration of the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”
(Nostra Aetate, #4)

Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has been engaged in an ongoing process of dialogue with the Jewish people. Over the years the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, whose President, Cardinal Walter Kasper, is one of the Catholic Church’s most distinguished theologians, has released three documents which are part of the official Catholic teaching concerning our understanding of and relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people. The Commission’s 1985 “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Catholic Church” has been an extremely important contribution in this regard. In an effort to make current official teaching available to American Catholics, the American Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs has published several helpful texts, which are normative for use in the United States. Among these are “God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching” (1988) and “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion” (1988).

Christians need to, and have a right to, tell the foundational story of Christianity, which is the redemption of humanity in Christ. Catholics tell this story liturgically every year on Passion/Palm Sunday and during the Triduum. However, that proclamation always occurs within a broader context: the passion is never simply isolated from the complete biblical/liturgical proclamation of the Gospel throughout the rest of the year. This provides a perspective for Catholics to understand the meaning of the passion. The essential question is not, “Who killed Jesus?” but rather, “Why did Jesus die?” Not without reason, Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate emphasized the theological meaning of Jesus’ death: “Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent his passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.” On this basis the “Criteria” concludes that “any presentations that explicitly or implicitly seek to shift responsibility from human sin onto this or that historical group, such as the Jews, can only be said to obscure a core gospel truth” (“Criteria,” #1).

When it comes to the interpretation of scripture, Catholics have to hold two truths in tension: while on the one hand, the Church teaches that the scriptures tell us, firmly, faithfully, and without error, the truth which is necessary for salvation, on the other hand, the Church teaches that the scriptures are not mere historical transcripts to be interpreted in a literal way. The Gospels are post-Easter proclamations of faith (see John 20:30-31). They are religious reflections on the meaning of what Jesus said and did by those who believe that Jesus is the risen Lord (see “Criteria,” C.1.b). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit each of the four evangelists emphasizes different aspects of the mystery of the Lord, a mystery so profound that it defies simplistic presentation. Fr. Raymond Brown, the renowned scripture scholar, suggested the image of a person walking around a large diamond to look at it from different angles. A true picture of the whole emerges only because the viewpoints are different. One needs also to keep in mind that because the New Testament is mediated through history, the gospels show a process of development (Pontifical Biblical Commission, Sancta Mater Ecclesia, 1964). “Hence it cannot be ruled out that some references hostile or less than favorable to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent church and the Jewish community. Certain controversies reflect Christian-Jewish relations long after the time of Jesus” (“Notes,” #29).

It is not, then, a case of whether or not to tell the story of Jesus’ passion, but how to tell it. In fact, the expression “the passion” can itself be further nuanced since there are four distinct passion accounts with each gospel portraying the death of Jesus in a different manner. Therefore, if one wishes to create a passion play, one either has to attempt to combine the four distinct passion accounts into one version (called a “harmonization”) or to dramatize only one account. If one attempts the former, there are decisions to be made concerning the differing details in the four distinct accounts. For example, in John 18, the experience of Jesus in “the garden” (not called “Gethsemane”) is one that could hardly be characterized as bitter suffering. On the other hand, in Mark 14, Jesus goes to “Gethsemane” (not called a “garden”) where his suffering is quite intense. When Jesus dies in Mark, the centurion calls him “the Son of God,” but when Jesus dies in Luke, the centurion calls Jesus “an innocent man.” Where this need to make choices becomes especially tricky is in those passages that, historically, have been the source of anti-Jewish interpretation. For example, in Mark 15 it is the “chief priests, with the elders and scribes and whole council” (in other words, specific leaders within the Jerusalem community) who turn Jesus over to Roman authority. And it is the chief priests (again, specific individuals) who stir up “the crowd.” (How big a crowd? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? Mark doesn’t say.) In John, on the other hand, while the “they” who bring Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate is ambiguous (18:28), “the crowd” (of Mark) suddenly becomes “the Jews” (18:31b). Depending on the choice one makes in creating a script, one can either highlight or diminish the responsibility of individuals or groups for the crucifixion of Jesus. Unarguably, the statement with the most sinister history of misuse against the Jewish people is found only in one gospel: “Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children’” (Matthew 27:25). Does one include this passage without at least also providing some context for a responsible interpretation of its meaning? (See The Gospel of Matthew by Fr. Daniel Harrington, The Liturgical Press, 1991.) The dilemma of choice becomes even more acute if one departs from the words of scripture in order to compose a script freestyle. For example, how does one portray Pontius Pilate, under whom, as we profess in our Creed, Jesus was crucified? Is Pilate a manipulated pawn or is he, as his contemporaries knew him, a cruel man given to violent solutions when political threats arose to Roman power?

I do not believe that most Christians are conscious of this dilemma. What is especially difficult for Christians to comprehend is that when the passion is proclaimed, we “hear” one story while Jews “hear” an entirely different one. That is because we both begin from different starting points. While Christians hear the proclamation of the reconciling love of God for all humanity, Jews hear a story filtered through their experience of centuries of denigration and persecution. I believe that most Christians have no intention whatsoever of perpetuating the disparagement of the Jewish people. Such a possibility simply doesn’t occur to us because the specific details seem to get lost in the overall message of the Lord’s immense love, a love to which he was faithful even through bitter suffering unto death. We need to tell the story of the passion, but we also need not to become defensive or resentful when we consider the words of Pope John Paul that, “…erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament relative to the Jewish people and their presumed guilt circulated for too long, engendering sentiments of hostility toward this people.” Sadly, while there is a long history of anti-Jewish interpretation on the part of Catholics and other Christians, there is also – not without reason - a corresponding history of suspicion and ignorance of Christianity on the part of Jews. How shall we overcome this? Surely it will not be through diatribe and mutual recrimination.

Statement on the Liturgical Proclamation of the Passion
Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs

The message of the liturgy in proclaiming the passion narratives in full is to enable the assembly to see vividly the love of Christ for each person, despite their sins, a love that even death could not vanquish. The crimes during the Passion of Christ cannot be attributed indiscriminately to all Jews of that time, nor to Jews today. The Jewish people should not be referred to as though rejected or cursed, as if this view followed from Scripture. The Church ever keeps in mind that Jesus, his mother Mary, and the apostles all were Jewish. As the Church has always held, Christ freely suffered his passion and death because of the sins of all, that all might be saved.