The sufferings of Our Lord, which culminated in His death upon the cross, seem to have been conceived of as one inseparable whole from a very early period. Even in the Acts of the Apostles (i, 3) St. Luke speaks of those to whom Christ “shewed himself alive after his passion” (meta to mathein autou). In the Vulgate this has been rendered post passionem suam, and not only the Reims Testament but the Anglican Authorized and Revised Versions, as well as the medieval English translation attributed to Wyclif, have retained the word “passion” in English. Passio also meets us in the same sense in other early writings (e.g. Tertullian, “Adv. Marcion.”, IV, 40) and the word was clearly in common use in the middle of the third century, as in Cyprian, Novatian, and Commodian. The last named writes:
“Hoc Deus hortatur, hoc lex, hoc passio Christi
Ut resurrecturos nos credamus in novo sæclo.”
St. Paul declared, and we require no further evidence to convince us that he spoke truly, that Christ crucified was “unto the Jews indeed a stumbling-block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The shock to Pagan feeling, caused by the ignominy of Christ’s Passion and the seeming incompatibility of the Divine nature with a felon’s death, seems not to have been without its effect upon the thought of Christians themselves. Hence, no doubt, arose that prolific growth of heretical Gnostic or Docetic sects, which denied the reality of the man Jesus Christ or of His sufferings. Hence also came the tendency in the early Christian centuries to depict the countenance of the Saviour as youthful, fair, and radiant, the very antithesis of the vir dolorum familiar to a later age (cf. Weis Libersdorf, “Christus-und Apostel-bilder”, 31 sq.) and to dwell by preference not upon His sufferings but upon His works of mercifulness, as in the Good Shepherd motive, or upon His works of power, as in the raising of Lazarus or in the resurrection figured by the history of Jonas.
But while the existence of such a tendency to draw a veil over the physical side of the Passion may readily be admitted, it would be easy to exaggerate the effect produced upon Christian feeling in the early centuries by Pagan ways of thought. Harnack goes too far when he declares that the Death and Passion of Christ were regarded by the majority of the Greeks as too sacred a mystery to be made the subject of contemplation or speculation, and when he declares that the feeling of the early Greek Church is accurately represented in the following passage of Goethe: “We draw a veil over the sufferings of Christ, simply because we revere them so deeply. We hold if to be reprehensible presumption to play, and trifle with, and embellish those profound mysteries in which the Divine depths of suffering lie hidden, never to rest until even the noblest seems mean and tasteless” (Harnack, “History Of Dogma”, tr., III, 306; cf. J. Reil, “Die frühchristlichen Darstellungen der Kreuzigung Christi”, 5). On the other hand, while Harnack speaks with caution and restraint, other more popular writers give themselves to reckless generalizations such as may be illustrated by the following passage from Archdeacon Farrar: “The aspect”, he says, “in which the early Christians viewed the cross was that of triumph and exultation, never that of moaning and misery. It was the emblem of victory and of rapture, not of blood or of anguish.” (See “The Month”, May, 1895, 89.) Of course it is true that down to the fifth century the specimens of Christian art that have been preserved to us in the catacombs and elsewhere, exhibit no traces of any sort of representation of the crucifixion. Even the simple cross is rarely found before the time of Constantine (see CROSS), and when the figure of the Divine Victim comes to be indicated, it at first appears most commonly under some symbolical form, e.g. that of a lamb, and there is no attempt as a rule to represent the crucifixion realistically. Again, the Christian literature which has survived, whether Greek or Latin, does not dwell upon the details of the Passion or very frequently fall back upon the motive of our Saviour’s sufferings. The tragedy known as “Christus Patiens”, which is printed with the works of St. Gregory Nazianzus and was formerly attributed to him, is almost certainly a work of much later date, probably not earlier than the eleventh century (see Krumbacher, “Byz. Lit.”, 746).
In spite of all this it would be rash to infer that the Passion was not a favourite subject of contemplation for Christian ascetics. To begin with, the Apostolical writings preserved in the New Testament are far from leaving the sufferings of Christ in the background as a motive of Christian endeavour; take, for instance, the words of St. Peter (1 Peter 2:19, 21, 23): “For this is thankworthy, if for conscience towards God, a man endure sorrows, suffering wrongfully”; “For unto this are you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow his steps”; “Who, when he was reviled, did not revile”, etc.; or again: “Christ therefore having suffered in the flesh, be you also armed with the same thought” (ibid., iv, 1). So St. Paul (Galatians 2:19): “with Christ I am nailed to the cross. And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me”; and (ibid., v, 24): “they that are Christ’s, have crucified their flesh, with the vices and concupiscences” (cf. Colossians 1:24); and perhaps most strikingly of all (Galatians 6:14): “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.” Seeing the great influence that the New Testament exercised from a very early period upon the leaders of Christian thought, it is impossible to believe that such passages did not leave their mark upon the devotional practice of the West, though it is easy to discover plausible reasons why this spirit should not have displayed itself more conspicuously in literature. It certainly manifested itself in the devotion of the martyrs who died in imitation of their Master, and in the spirit of martyrdom that characterized the early Church.
Further, we do actually find in such an Apostolic Father as St. Ignatius of Antioch, who, though a Syrian by birth, wrote in Greek and was in touch with Greek culture, a very continuous and practical remembrance of the Passion. After expressing in his letter to the Romans (cc. iv, ix) his desire to be martyred, and by enduring many forms of suffering to prove himself the true disciple of Jesus Christ, the saint continues: “Him I seek who dies on our behalf; Him I desire who rose again for our sake. The pangs of a new birth are upon me. Suffer me to receive the pure light. When I am come thither then shall I be a man. Permit me to be an imitator of the Passion of my God. If any man hath Him within himself, let him understand what I desire, and let him have fellow-feeling with me, for he knoweth the things which straiten me.” And again he says in his letter to the Smyrnæans (c. iv): “near to the sword, near to God (i.e. Jesus Christ), in company with wild beasts, in company with God. Only let it be in the name of Jesus Christ. So that we may suffer together with Him” (eis to sympathein auto).
Moreover, taking the Syrian Church in general — and rich as it was in the traditions of Jerusalem it was far from being an uninfluential part of Christendom — we do find a pronounced and even emotional form of devotion to the Passion established at an early period. Already in the second century a fragment preserved to us of St. Melito of Sardis speaks as Father Faber might have spoken in modern times. Apostrophising the people of Israel, he says: “Thou slewest thy Lord and He was lifted up upon a tree and a tablet was fixed up to denote who He was that was put to death — And who was this? — Listen while ye tremble: — He on whose account the earth quaked; He that suspended the earth was hanged up; He that fixed the heavens was fixed with nails; He that supported the earth was supported upon a tree; the Lord was exposed to ignominy with a naked body; God put to death; the King of Israel slain by an Israelitish right hand. Ah! the fresh wickedness of the fresh murder! The Lord was exposed with a naked body, He was not deemed worthy even of covering, but in order that He might not be seen, the lights were turned away, and the day became dark because they were slaying God, who was naked upon the tree” (Cureton, “Spicilegium Syriacum”, 55).
No doubt the Syrian and Jewish temperament was an emotional temperament, and the tone of their literature may often remind us of the Celtic. But in any case it is certain that a most realistic presentation of Our Lord’s sufferings found favour with the Fathers of the Syrian Church apparently from the beginning. It would be easy to make long quotations of this kind from the works of St. Ephraem, St. Isaac of Antioch, and St. James of Sarugh. Zingerle in the “Theologische Quartalschrift” (1870 and 1871) has collected many of the most striking passages from the last two writers. In all this literature we find a rather turgid Oriental imagination embroidering almost every detail of the history of the Passion. Christ’s elevation upon the cross is likened by Isaac of Antioch to the action of the stork, which builds its nest upon the treetops to be safe from the insidious approach of the snake; while the crown of thorns suggests to him a wall with which the safe asylum of that nest is surrounded, protecting all the children of God who are gathered in the nest from the talons of the hawk or other winged foes (Zingerle, ibid., 1870, 108). Moreover St. Ephraem who wrote in the last quarter of the fourth century, is earlier in date and even more copious and realistic in his minute study of the physical details of the Passion. It is difficult to convey in a short quotation any true impression of the effect produced by the long-sustained note of lamentation, in which the orator and poet follows up his theme. In the Hymns on the Passion (“Ephraem Syri Hymni et Sermones,” ed. Lamy, I) the writer moves like a devout pilgrim from scene to scene, and from object to object, finding everywhere new motives for tenderness and compassion, while the seven “Sermons for Holy Week” might both for their spirit and treatment have been penned by any medieval mystic. “Glory be to Him, how much he suffered!” is an exclamation which bursts from the preacher’s lips from time to time. To illustrate the general tone, the following passage from a description of the scourging must suffice:
“After many vehement outcries against Pilate, the all-mighty One was scourged like the meanest criminal. Surely there must have been commotion and horror at the sight. Let the heavens and earth stand awestruck to behold Him who swayeth the rod of fire, Himself smitten with scourges, to behold Him who spread over the earth the veil of the skies and who set fast the foundations of the mountains, who poised the earth over the waters and sent down the blazing lightning-flash, now beaten by infamous wretches over a stone pillar that His own word had created. They, indeed, stretched out His limbs and outraged Him with mockeries. A man whom He had formed wielded the scourge. He who sustains all creatures with His might submitted His back to their stripes; He who is the Father’s right arm yielded His own arms to be extended. The pillar of ignominy was embraced by Him who bears up and sustains the heaven and the earth in all their splendour” (Lamy, I, 511 sq.). The same strain is continued over several pages, and amongst other quaint fancies St. Ephraem remarks: “The very column must have quivered as if it were alive, the cold stone must have felt that the Master was bound to it who had given it its being. The column shuddered knowing that the Lord of all creatures was being scourged”. And he adds, as a marvel, witnessed even in his own day, that the “column had contracted with fear beneath the Body of Christ”.
In the devotional atmosphere represented by such contemplations as these, it is easy to comprehend the scenes of touching emotion depicted by the pilgrim lady of Galicia who visited Jerusalem (if Dr. Meester’s protest may be safely neglected) towards the end of the fourth century. At Gethsemane she describes how “that passage of the Gospel is read where the Lord was apprehended, and when this passage has been read there is such a moaning and groaning of all the people, with weeping that the groans can be hear almost at the city. While during the three hours’ ceremony on Good Friday from midday onwards we are told: “At the several lections and prayers there is such emotion displayed and lamentation of all the people as is wonderful to hear. For there is no one, great or small, who does not weep on that day during those three hours, in a way that cannot be imagined, that the Lord should have suffered such things for us” (Peregrinatio Sylviæ in “Itinera Hierosolymitana”, ed. Geyer, 87, 89). It is difficult not to suppose that this example of the manner of honouring Our Saviour’s Passion, which was traditional in the very scenes of those sufferings, did not produce a notable impression upon Western Europe. The lady from Galicia, whether we call her Sylvia, Ætheria, or Egeria, was but one of the vast crowd of pilgrims who streamed to Jerusalem from all parts of the world. The tone of St. Jerome (see for instance the letters of Paula and Eustochium to Marcella in A.D. 386; P.L., XXII, 491) is similar, and St. Jerome’s words penetrated wherever the Latin language was spoken. An early Christian prayer, reproduced by Wessely (Les plus anciens mon. de Chris., 206), shows the same spirit.
We can hardly doubt that soon after the relics of the True Cross had been carried by devout worshippers into all Christian lands (we know the fact not only from the statement of St. Cyril of Jerusalem himself but also from inscriptions found in North Africa only a little later in date) that some ceremonial analogous to our modern “adoration” of the Cross upon Good Friday was introduced, in imitation of the similar veneration paid to the relic of the True Cross at Jerusalem. It was at this time too that the figure of the Crucified began to be depicted in Christian art, though for many centuries any attempt at a realistic presentment of the sufferings of Christ was almost unknown. Even in Gregory of Tours (De Gloria Mart.) a picture of Christ upon the cross seems to be treated as something of a novelty. Still such hymns as the “Pange lingua gloriosi prœlium certaminis”, and the “Vexilla regis”, both by Venantius Fortunatus (c. 570), clearly mark a growing tendency to dwell upon the Passion as a separate object of contemplation. The more or less dramatic recital of the Passion by three deacons representing the “Chronista”, “Christus”, and “Synagoga”, in the Office of Holy Week probably originated at the same period, and not many centuries later we begin to find the narratives of the Passion in the Four Evangelists copied separately into books of devotion. This, for example, is the case in the ninth-century English collection known as “the Book of Cerne”. An eighth century collection of devotions (manuscript Harley 2965) contains pages connected with the incidents of the Passion. In the tenth century the Cursus of the Holy Cross was added to the monastic Office (see Bishop, “Origin of the Prymer”, p. xxvii, n.).
Still more striking in its revelation of the developments of devotional imagination is the existence of such a vernacular poem as Cynewulf’s “Dream of the Rood”, in which the tree of the cross is conceived of as telling its own story. A portion of this Anglo-Saxon poem still stands engraved in runic letters upon the celebrated Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. The italicized lines in the following represent portions of the poem which can still be read upon the stone:
I had power all
his foes to fell,
but yet I stood fast.
Then the young hero prepared himself,
That was Almighty God,
Strong and firm of mood,
he mounted the lofty cross
courageously in the sight of many,
when he willed to redeem mankind.
I trembled when the hero embraced me,
yet dared I not bow down to earth,
fall to the bosom of the ground,
but I was compelled to stand fast,
a cross was I reared,
I raised the powerful King
The lord of the heavens,
I dared not fall down.
They pierced me with dark nails,
on me are the wounds visible.
Still it was not until the time of St. Bernard and St. Francis of Assisi that the full developments of Christian devotion to the Passion were reached. It seems highly probable that this was an indirect result of the preaching of the Crusades, and the consequent awakening of the minds of the faithful to a deeper realization of all the sacred memories represented by Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre. When Jerusalem was recaptured by the Saracens in 1187, worthy Abbot Samson of Bury St. Edmunds was so deeply moved that he put on haircloth and renounced flesh meat from that day forth — and this was not a solitary case, as the enthusiasm evoked by the Crusades conclusively shows.
Under any circumstances it is noteworthy that the first recorded instance of stigmata (if we leave out of account the doubtful case of St. Paul) was that of St. Francis of Assisi. Since his time there have been over 320 similar manifestations which have reasonable claims to be considered genuine (Poulain, “Graces of Interior Prayer”, tr., 175). Whether we regard these as being wholly supernatural or partly natural in their origin, the comparative frequency of the phenomenon seems to point to a new attitude of Catholic mysticism in regard to the Passion of Christ, which has only established itself since the beginning of the thirteenth century. The testimony of art points to a similar conclusion. It was only at about this same period that realistic and sometimes extravagantly contorted crucifixes met with any general favour. The people, of course, lagged far behind the mystics and the religious orders, but they followed in their wake; and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries we have innumerable illustrations of the adoption by the laity of new practices of piety to honour Our Lord’s Passion. One of the most fruitful and practical was that type of spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Places of Jerusalem, which eventually crystalized into what is now known to us as the “Way of the Cross”. The “Seven Falls” and the “Seven Bloodsheddings” of Christ may be regarded as variants of this form of devotion. How truly genuine was the piety evoked in an actual pilgrimage to the Holy Land is made very clear, among other documents, by the narrative of the journeys of the Dominican Felix Fabri at the close of the fifteenth century, and the immense labour taken to obtain exact measurements shows how deeply men’s hearts were stirred by even a counterfeit pilgrimage. Equally to this period belong both the popularity of the Little Offices of the Cross and “De Passione”, which are found in so many of the Horæ, manuscript and printed, and also the introduction of new Masses in honour of the Passion, such for example as those which are now almost universally celebrated upon the Fridays of Lent. Lastly, an inspection of the prayer-books compiled towards the close of the Middle Ages for the use of the laity, such as the “Horæ Beatæ Mariæ Virginis”, the “Hortulus Animæ”, the “Paradisus Animæ” etc., shows the existence of an immense number of prayers either connected with incidents in the Passion or addressed to Jesus Christ upon the Cross. The best known of these perhaps were the fifteen prayers attributed to St. Bridget, and described most commonly in English as “the Fifteen O’s”, from the exclamation with which each began.
In modern times a vast literature, and also a hymnology, has grown up relating directly to the Passion of Christ. Many of the innumerable works produced in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries have now been completely forgotten, though some books like the medieval “Life of Christ” by the Carthusian Ludolphus of Saxony, the “Sufferings of Christ” by Father Thomas of Jesus, the Carmelite Guevara’s “Mount of Calvary”, or “The Passion of Our Lord” by Father de La Palma, S.J., are still read. Though such writers as Justus Lipsius and Father Gretser, S.J., at the end of the sixteenth century, and Dom Calmet, O.S.B., in the eighteenth, did much to illustrate the history of the Passion from historical sources, the general tendency of all devotional literature was to ignore such means of information as were provided by archæology and science, and to turn rather to the revelations of the mystics to supplement the Gospel records.
Amongst these, the Revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden, of Maria Agreda, of Marina de Escobar and, in comparatively recent times, of Anne Catherine Emmerich are the most famous. Within the last fifty years, however, there has been a reaction against this procedure, a reaction due probably to the fact that so many of these revelations plainly contradict each other, for example on the question whether the right or left shoulder of Our Lord was wounded by the weight of the cross, or whether Our Saviour was nailed to the cross standing or lying. In the best modern lives of Our Saviour, such as those of Didon, Fouard, and Le Camus, every use is made of subsidiary sources of information, not neglecting even the Talmud. The work of Père Ollivier, “The Passion” (tr., 1905), follows the same course, but in many widely-read devotional works upon this subject, for example: Faber, “The Foot of the Cross”; Gallwey, “The Watches of the Passion”; Coleridge, “Passiontide” etc.; Groenings, “Hist. of the Passion” (Eng. tr); Belser, D’Gesch. d. Leidens d. Hernn; Grimm, “Leidengeschichte Christi”, the writers seem to have judged that historical or critical research was inconsistent with the ascetical purpose of their works.
Written by Herbert Thurston. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ – The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company.