There are many ways to understand Lent, I suppose. One of them is that of the process of becoming human. The journey of Lent is the journey with the Lord to the Cross where He fulfilled and He perfected the human race. And as we follow Him to that Cross our challenge as well is to seek to become human again. The question is, what does it mean to be human? So, in the next few weeks what I’d like to do on Friday evening here is talk about three fundamental elements of human identity. And tonight I’d like to talk about the first of those elements which I will simply refer to as ‘passion’.
To be human means to be a passionate being. Now, we’ve understood that passion, according to the Scripture, according to the Fathers, is not about emotion really. It’s about being subject to something. The word ‘passion’ comes from the Latin passio which is a derivation of the Greek word pascho which means, I suffer. And what that refers to is being subject and compelled to do things that are, in a sense, beyond our control. It’s a kind of slavery, a kind of compulsion. And we’ve also heard that passions are bad things. We often hear that passions are bad things, and that’s certainly one way of reading them. Some of the Fathers indeed, and many of the Fathers do talk about passions as bad things. But other Fathers also speak about passions in a neutral sense of that word. Passion, in general, as a neutral term. And indeed we talk about the Passion of our Lord. Pascha itself means Passion. So when we talk about passion we can understand it as the being evil, being destructive on the one hand, but also being neutral on the other hand.
And by what sense are the passions neutral? Well, passion, as I said, is anything that subjects us. And so when we think about the things that subject us we are subjected to our genetic makeup, we are subjected to our bodies, we’re subjected to our upbringing, we have no control over that. We’re subjected to hunger, we have no control over that. We’re subjected to thirst, we have no control over that. In a larger sense we are subjected to time, to the process of aging and growing — no control over that. Now, when passions, in this sense of the word, become destructive is when they dominate us. When they compel us and they force us to act in particular ways, or rather, when we allow them to force us to act in particular ways. When our passions dictate to us our behavior they become destructive. That’s when they become evil in the sense that we talk about ridding ourselves of passions.
But there’s another sense in which we’re called, not so much to eradicate them, as to re-orient them, as to bring them into a proper place. So, for instance, the Lord’s Passion. It’s referred to in the Church as the Passionless Passion, that is to say that He was subject to, but not controlled by, ultimately, human life. And, therefore, ultimately, the goal is not to run away from, and make them disappear, these passions of ours, but rather it is to conquer them, to subject them ultimately to the grace of God. To become their masters, to confront them, and that’s how we do it. That’s how ultimately we subject the passions. We start by confronting them, by admitting that we are fundamentally passionate beings. Our temptation is to run away from those things that make us weak, and to hope that if we run fast enough and far enough we can eventually escape them. The problem with running away from the things that make us weak, however, is that it affirms once again their power over us. If you run away from the school-yard bully you are simply reinforcing the fact that he is the school-yard bully, that he has power over you. So, if you want to conquer the school-yard bully you don’t run away from him, you stand up to him, you confront him. And that is our fundamental challenge.
One of my most important memories, I think, is that of being a child of about six or seven years old, and being confined in my room in the morning, and not being allowed to get up and move around and play around because I made too much noise and woke up my parents when they were sleeping. And I remember very clearly lying there in that bed feeling this confinement, feeling restricted, not being able to go anywhere, not being able to do anything. And I remember all kinds of mischief I would get into trying to be very very quiet, but simply, fundamentally, not accepting the fact that I was in this situation, refusing to accept it, wanting to escape from it. And as I got older, of course, I was no longer confined in that particular way. But the room itself, that room at that moment in time in my childhood, really became a paradigm for all the other passionate moments, for the passionate life itself, for all of the other things that were given in my life, my body, my.. everything else, the hand of cards that I’d been dealt.
And so, each of us, I believe, has a similar image, a similar room, a similar given-ness in our lives, and we have two choices. We can either try to escape from that room, or we can stay and live in that room and face it, and hope that, in the midst of that suffering, in the midst of that confinement, in the midst of that passion, God will grant us freedom. And He will. He will grant us freedom from passion but only when we face and confront that passion. He will grant us resurrection but only if we first take up and hold and carry that Cross to Golgotha with Him. And that is the first step that we must take in becoming true human beings.