Contemplating the Passion and Preaching the Gospel

There comes a point where you want to know what the hell happened to Jesus on that Good Friday so very long ago. I lived with a Navajo woman one summer and we got into all sorts of conversations about religion. At one point I was trying to explain to her why Jesus died, all about how He went through all of it for our sake, so that we could be saved from our sin and go to heaven when we die.

She then asked me a question that I have pondered off and on ever since then: “Imagine you were able to look down on the entire scene and you didn't know anything about what you just told me, what would you think?”

The answer she was getting at, which I couldn't see at the time, was a simple acknowledgment of the horrible tragedy that a group of human beings could treat a fellow human being with such astounding brutality. Sometimes we miss that in the quick leap we often make to the cosmic necessity of Jesus' death for our salvation. It almost sounds like a rationalization. After all, if someone hadn't killed Jesus, then we couldn't be saved, so it was OK, right?

Towards the end of last year I started contemplating the Passion from the point of view that this horrendous ordeal happened to someone I love with all my heart. I'm setting aside the reason and the necessity for the time being, just thinking about what happened and who it happened to. That's when I wanted to know, really know, what it was that Jesus went through. I watched the famous movie The Passion of the Christ. More recently I read a book written in 1833 that served as a primary source for the producer of the movie. The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is a compilation of a series of vivid visions a German nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich experienced and shared with a writer who was interested enough in what she had to say to spend hours and hours listening to her and taking notes. And I've read and pondered some of the accounts from Sacred Scripture.

The bottom line is that what Jesus experienced was absolutely awful. It was as if the entire pit of hell took out all its vile hatred on Jesus in a few hours through the people who actively participated in insulting and torturing Him. In contrast, Jesus remained silent, never once returning even the slightest retaliation. He asked His Father to forgive those who killed Him, and He even expressed concern for those around Him–His Mother, His disciples Peter and John, even Judas who betrayed Him, the thief on the cross next to Him who defended Him, the weeping women of Jerusalem. Pure Righteousness in the midst of total depravity.

The prophet Isaiah, in speaking prophetically about Jesus' suffering and death, refers to Him as a Man of Sorrows well acquainted with grief, and I've pondered what it means to be a Man of Sorrows. I've thought about it quite a bit all through Lent and at some point decided I'd write a song about the Man of Sorrows.

Writing songs is something that I do occasionally, maybe once or twice a year, often much less than that. I'm a cantor at my parish, which means I get to be the one who helps everyone sing their parts during the Mass. It's a bit like worship leading, except that instead of having a designated time for the musical component of worship (a set of songs that gets sung before the sermon), I pretty much have to be ready to sing throughout the Liturgy. Sometimes the songs are very short, like a line or two, so I have to come in right on cue, which is harder than it looks. For the most part, it's already decided what I will sing, or what songs I get to choose from. But after Communion I can share a meditation song and there is a lot more leeway in what I choose to share. But the limitation there is that my parish may not have rights to the songs outside of our hymnbook and I've never really been motivated to look into it. But if I compose the song, I don't have to deal with it. With that in mind, I've written and shared a song about Advent and one for Christmas over the past few years.

This year I wanted to write something about Jesus' Passion and death since I'd already been thinking about it a lot. I'm not sure what process other songwriters go through when they compose a song, but for me it tends to be a fairly quick process. I'll start working out a basic melody (often while driving or doing housework), then add some words to it, sing it to myself over and over and then start adding more melody and words. Then I'll stay up late one evening and pull out my guitar, a pen and paper, write down the part I have and figure out the chords and then fill in the rest. Occasionally I may edit something, but for the most part, the lyrics that get written down the first time are what end up in the final composition. This means, quite simply, that writing a song is often a revelation to me about what is actually going on inside my heart.

When I was thinking about composing a song about the Man of Sorrows I was expecting it would be something along the lines of Jesus went through this and that and how much I love Him for it, want to follow Him, be like Him, even share in His sufferings, which I'm sure would have been great and all. What actually came out was a most pleasant surprise. The verses highlight events of Holy Week starting with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The chorus, which is the same each time except for the last line, asks a simple, yet profound question: Do you know the Man of Sorrows?(1) And how will that knowing change you?

Wow! I really, truly want to speak of these things. It's not enough for me to know Jesus for myself–I want others to know Him too, to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death. I can and I will preach the Gospel. I can and I will preach Christ crucified. I'm not exactly sure how, but I feel like I'm a lot closer to succeeding in this endeavor than I was before, perhaps because I know Him better than I did before.

Do you know Him? And what will you do about it?


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