Words fascinate me. For one thing, they are the tools of my trade as a teacher/scholar of theology. I have always been attracted to etymologies, homonyms, and, yes, puns. The latter delight finally led my daughter to admonish our family: “Don’t even groan. It just encourages him.”
Of particular interest to me are words that have come to mean both what they mean, as it were, and also the opposite. Take, for example, the verb “to stone.” It can mean to apply stones, sometimes with considerable force (as in the method of execution prescribed in some biblical passages). But it can also mean to remove stones, as in the somewhat old-fashioned, but still-used sense of taking the pit out of a piece of fruit. Or there is “to cleave,” whether it means to divide (as with a “cleaver”) or to cling to (as in the King James Version [KJV] of Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife . . .”). One that I actually used as the organizing device in a sermon on Luke’s Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican was the development of the verb “to prevent.” Originally, it meant to come before someone, from the Latin prae (before) + venire (to come), as in Psalm 88:13 (KJV again): “In the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.” Yet now it means very nearly the opposite, to stop a meeting (like a collision) that might otherwise occur. (My point, in a nutshell, was that each man “prevented” God, but in a different way: one pushing him to the side; the other drawing near to him.)
I got to mulling on this small collection as I began thinking about this coming Sunday. Traditionally known as Palm Sunday, many Christian churches now begin with the story of Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but then pivot to hear the story of his suffering and death that happened at the end of the week. So, it is also now known in those churches as Passion Sunday.
“Passion” is another one of those strange words. It comes from the Latin (and ultimately the Greek) meaning to suffer or, more literally yet, to receive suffering (think “passive”). But today we use it far more often in the sense of what we most love or aspire to, often in a sexual sense. For several years, the motto of the Lyric Opera in Chicago was “Long Live Passion,” and, despite the often gruesome endings of their performances, I doubt that the marketing department had suffering in mind. Nor do guidance counselors or faculty advisors have such a focus, when they ask students, “What is your passion?”
Yet these two senses of “passion” do come together in the events described at the end of all four New Testament Gospels. There is plenty of suffering at the climax of each: as one New Testament scholar put it, “To state the matter somewhat provocatively, one could call the Gospels passion narratives with extended introductions.” Yet in, with, and under all of the suffering is the utter determination of Jesus to see his mission through to the end. He is, in the most modern sense of the word, “passionate” to set things right between God and humanity.
As distracted as I am (and likely many others are) these days with all manner of concerns about things present and yet to come, it gladdens me to know that we have a God who is “passionate” about each and all of us in the senses both of cost and goal.