A Reflection for Easter
As we celebrate Easter, we invite you to reflect upon this writing by Henri Nouwen.
“From Action to Passion” by Henri Nouwen
I was invited to visit a friend who was very sick. He was a man about fifty-three years old who had lived a very active, useful, faithful, creative life. Actually, he was a social activist who had cared deeply for people. When he was fifty he found out he had cancer, and the cancer became more and more severe.
When I came to him, he said to me, “Henri, here I am lying in this bed, and I don’t even know how to think about being sick. My whole way of thinking about myself is in terms of action, in terms of doing things for people. My life is valuable because I’ve been able to do many things for many people. And suddenly, here I am, passive, and I can’t do anything anymore.” And he said to me, “Help me to think about this situation in a new way. Help me to think about my not being able to do anything anymore so I won’t be driven to despair. Help me to understand what it means that now all sorts of people are doing things to me over which I have no control.”
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.
All action ends in passion because the response to our action is out of our hands. That is the mystery of work, the mystery of love, the mystery of friendship, the mystery of community – they always involve waiting. And that is the mystery of Jesus’ love. God reveals himself in Jesus as the one waits for our response. Precisely in that waiting the intensity of God’s love is revealed to us. If God forced us to love, we would not really be lovers.
All these insights into Jesus’ passion were very important in the discussions with my friend. He realized that after much hard work he had to wait. He came to see that his vocation as a human being would be fulfilled not just in his actions but also in his passion. And together we began to understand that precisely in this waiting the glory of God and our new life both become visible.
Precisely when Jesus is being handed over into his passion, he manifests his glory. “Whom do you seek?… I am he” are words that echo all the way back to Moses and the burning bush: “I am the one. I am who I am” (see Exodus 3:1-6). In Gethsemane, the glory of God manifested itself again, and they fell flat on the ground. Then Jesus was handed over. But already in the handing over we see the glory of God who hands himself over to us. God’s glory revealed in Jesus embraces passion as well as resurrection.
“The Son of Man,” Jesus says, “must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15). He is lifted up as a passive victim, so the cross is a sign of desolation. And he is lifted up in glory, so the cross becomes at the same time a sign of hope. Suddenly we realize that the glory of God, the divinity of God, bursts through in Jesus’ passion precisely when he is most victimized. So new life becomes visible not only in the resurrection on the third day, but already in the passion, in the being handed over. Why? Because it is in the passion that the fullness of God’s love shines through. It is supremely a waiting love, a love that does not seek control.
When we allow ourselves to feel fully how we are being acted upon, we can come in touch with a new life that we were not even aware was there. This was the question my sick friend and I talked about constantly. Could he taste the new life in the midst of his passion? Could he see that in his being acted upon by the hospital staff he was already being prepared for a deeper love? It was a love that had been underneath all the action, but he had not tasted it fully. So together we began to see that in the midst of our suffering and passion, in the midst of our waiting, we can already experience the resurrection.
Imagine how important that message is for people in our world. If it is true that God in Jesus Christ is waiting for our response to divine love, then we can discover a whole new perspective on how to wait in life. We can learn to be obedient people who do not always try to go back to the action but who recognize the fulfillment of our deepest humanity in passion, in waiting. If we can do this, I am convinced that we will come in touch with the glory of God and our own new life. Then our service to others will include our helping them see the glory breaking through, not only where they are active but also where they are being acted upon.
Henri Nouwen, “From Action to Passion,” from “A Spirituality of Waiting” by Henri J. M. Nouwen, in The Weavings Reader, ed. by John Mogabgab. Copyright 1993 by The Upper Room. Used by permission.