The Passionists - Compassion

Christian Mystics and the Passion of Jesus

Bridget of Swedenby Victor Hoagland, C.P.

SpaceGenerations of Christians have been inspired by the holiness and vivid revelations of mystics like St. Bridget of Sweden (+1373), St. Catherine of Siena (+1380) and Catherine Anne Emmerich. (+1824). Their writings still attract believers. Evidently, the actor Mel Gibson, producer of "The Passion," feels that attraction, too.

Who are the mystics?

SpaceThe word itself, "mystic," comes from the Greek verb that means to close oneself off, to shut one's eyes. The mystics appear so concentrated on God that they seem to see hardly anything else. Some leave spiritual writings and reports of visions, but many leave no writings, no reports of visions at all. That's because mysticism is not about producing visions but pursuing God.

SpaceThough mystics can be reclusive, some live embattled lives. Bridget of Sweden, for example, who was a powerful instrument for 14th century church reform, charged popes, bishops, priests and secular rulers with causing suffering to Jesus and his church by their abuse of authority. The Swedish noblewoman's stern warnings are often found in the midst of her meditations on Jesus' passion, which she paints in violent brush strokes meant to jolt her lax hearers. right: Bridget of Sweden

SpaceThrough the centuries, detailed descriptions of gospel stories by mystics have furnished artists, writers and dramatists with plentiful material for presenting the Christian mysteries. Artists and writers of the middle ages especially turned to them for depictions of the life of Jesus, particularly his passion and death. Mystics have helped shape the Christian imagination as well as many Christian devotional practices.

Their love of the Passion of Jesus

SpaceA favorite subject for Christian mystics is the passion of Jesus, which they see as a powerful sign of God's love. It also provides them with a way to look at their own society and to understand the experience they have in their personal search for God. For them Calvary is a place from which one sees everything.

Giotto's PietaSpaceLargely through them, some incidents that are not contained in the gospels of the passion have become etched into the popular imagination. One thinks of the poignant scene of Mary, holding in her arms the dead body of Jesus her son after his crucifixion-- the Pieta. The gospels say nothing about it. Yet the mystics generally took for granted that Mary not only had a part in his removal from the cross but in so many other events of his passion as well. They saw her hurrying to be with him after his arrest. She was there when he was judged, when he was pushed on his way to Calvary. She stood beneath his cross and remained with him as long as she could. The mother's presence at the death of her son added a powerful human dimension to the gospel story.

SpaceMystics and pilgrims also influenced the creation of devotions like the Stations of the Cross, a prominent devotion of the western church. It presents Jesus falling three times on his way to Calvary, falls not mentioned in the gospels yet surely plausible, considering the weakness he suffered from his scourging. right: Giotti's Pieta

SpaceThe Stations of the Cross as western Christians usually follow it offers an interesting parallel to the gospels. It begins with the condemnation of Jesus by Pilate, and so concentrates on the crucial role of the Roman Procurator --- as the creedal formula does: "he suffered under Pontius Pilate." Roman soldiers take him away and crucify him. A Jewish trial does not appear.

SpaceThe devotion highlights sympathetic Jewish participants. Besides Mary his mother, there is Veronica, who wipes the face of Jesus. Her story is not found in the gospel. Then there is Simon of Cyrene who helps Jesus carry his cross, the Jewish women who mourn him as he passes, the Pharisee Nicodemus who takes him down from the cross and buries him -- figures appearing also in the scriptures.


What authority do the mystics have?


also in this issue:
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" | "Seeing" the Passion of Jesus
Christian Mystics and the Passion | Dramatizing the Passion
Act with Compassion



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