The Psalter reading for this Passion Sunday is not unfamiliar. “Have mercy on me, Lord, because I’m depressed. My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. My life is consumed with sadness; my years are consumed with groaning. Strength fails me because of my suffering; my bones dry up. I’m a joke to all my enemies, still worse to my neighbors. I scare my friends, and whoever sees me in the street runs away! I am forgotten, like I’m dead, completely out of my mind; I am like a piece of pottery, destroyed. Yes, I’ve heard all the gossiping, terror all around; so many gang up together against me, they plan to take my life! But me? I trust you, Lord! I affirm, ‘You are my God.’ My future is in your hands. Don’t hand me over to my enemies, to all who are out to get me! Shine your face on your servant; save me by your faithful love!”
It certainly is a passage that Jesus would have known. He grew up reading the Psalms, and quoted from the Psalms on numerous occasions. He knew what God could do in the midst of hardship, betrayal, and pain. “My future is in your hands,” He might have prayed during the long night in Gethsemane.
And yet the central phrase in the story of Jesus’ arrest as part of the complete Passion narrative, echoed in the reading from Matthew, is the next verse in Psalm 31. “Don’t hand me over to my enemies, to all who are out to get me!” This is, after all, precisely what happened in the garden. Jesus was handed over. Judas may have betrayed Jesus with a kiss, as Matthew 26:49 says, but the same word is used for God later in the Scriptures. God did not spare His own Son, but as Romans 8:32 tells us, handed Him over for the benefit of us all.
This seems to play a central role in the life of Our Lord. Indeed, being handed over divides the life of Jesus radically in two. In the first part His life is filled with activity. Jesus speaks, and preaches, and heals, and travels. But immediately after He is handed over, He becomes the One to whom things are done. Jesus is arrested, is led to the high priest, is taken before Pilate, is crowned with thorns, is nailed to a cross. This is the meaning of passion. It is being the recipient of other people’s initiatives.
In the Matthean narrative, in 27:50 to be precise, Jesus gives a loud cry before He dies. John’s Gospel is the only one which tells us what that cry was. He records that the last words of Jesus from the cross were, “It is accomplished.” It is finished. This does not mean, “I have done all the things I wanted to do.” At least, not only that. It also means, “I have allowed things to be done to me that needed to be done in order to fulfill my mission.” Jesus does not complete the work in action only, but also in passion. He doesn’t fulfill His mission just 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. He receives other people’s initiatives.
Passion, as experienced in Psalm 31:9-16, is a kind of waiting. It involves waiting for what other people are going to do, and longing for deliverance. “Save me by your faithful love!” Jesus went to Jerusalem to announce the good news to the people of that city. He knew that He was going to put a choice before them. “Will you be my disciple or will you be my executioner?” There was no middle ground. He put people in a situation where they had to say yes or no.
And here is where we find the great drama of Jesus’ Passion, the ongoing drama of Jesus’ Passion, foreshadowed in the Psalms. He had to wait upon how people were going to respond. Would they come to betray Him or to follow Him? In a way, I think His agony was not simply the agony of approaching death. It was also the agony of having to wait. It is the agony of a God who depends on us for how God is going to live out the divine presence among us. It is the agony of the God who, in a very mysterious way, allows us to decide how God will be God, how God will move among us, how God will work mighty deeds in our midst. It is the agony of the God who came to seek and save the lost, but who can only save if we accept His free gift of salvation.
This is where we can share in the passion of Christ. All action ends in passion because the response of others to what we do is out of our hands. At some point we have to sit back and see what will happen, how people will take what we’ve said or what we’ve done or what we’ve offered. That is the mystery of work, it is the mystery of love, the mystery of friendship, the mystery of community, the mystery of ministry. It always involves waiting.
And that is the mystery of Jesus’ love as well. God is revealed in Jesus as the One who waits for our response. Precisely in that waiting the intensity of God’s love is revealed to us. For if God forced us to love, we would not really be lovers. “I trust you, Lord! I affirm, ‘You are my God.’” May it be so, even and especially in the waiting.