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By embracing Christ’s Passion, we overcome our passions

On the Readings for Sunday, September 19, 2021



• Wis 2:12, 17-20
• Ps 54:3-4, 5, 6 and 8
• Jas 3:16-4:3
• Mk 9:30-37

Three of the greatest temptations known to man are lust for power, pursuit of illicit pleasure, and envious grasping for possessions. These three flow, in various ways, from the capital sins: pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia (CCC 1866). All three, it is important to note, are perversions of authentic and good gifts from God: proper dominion and authority, the wholesome enjoyment of material things, and the joy of right relationships.

These temptations are the subjects of the discourses proclaimed in the Gospel readings over the next four weeks (Mk. 9:30-10:31). The first part of today’s Gospel marks an important transition, which is both physical and pedagogical in nature. First, Jesus and the disciples began to journey through Galilee toward Jerusalem. Secondly, Jesus was not preaching to the crowds that had swarmed after him, but was giving private instructions to his disciples.

Finally, once again, as he had done a bit earlier (Mk. 8:31), Jesus spoke of his approaching Passion: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him…” He would return again to this prophetic message (Mk. 10:32-4), creating a sort of frame around the discourses in-between. This structure was not accidental, for there is a significant relationship—one of conflict and opposition—between the Passion and the temptations to power, pleasure, and possessions.

Put another way, the Passion is the antidote to human passions. Jesus Christ, fully human, freely chose to be handed over to certain death. In doing so, he decisively rejected the pull and allure of power, pleasure, and possessions. Yet he also had to teach his disciples the same, which was no small task considering their frail natures and their imperfect understanding of his mission: “But they did not understand the saying”—that is, his foretelling of his death and resurrection—“and they were afraid to question him.” As is so often the case, fear is the acid that eats away at the flesh of faith.

The subject of the argument Jesus asked the disciples about at the home of Peter and Andrew in Capernaum (cf. Mk. 1:29) is the same subject that has sparked countless arguments, heresies, and schisms over two thousand years of Church history. Who is the greatest? Who will have the most power? Who is in charge? Jesus’ answer was not, of course, merely talk, for he would walk the talk when he willingly took up the Cross and accepted death.

The tree he would be nailed upon was one rooted in perfect humility. “Observe a tree,” wrote Augustine, “how it first tends downward, that it may then shoot upwards. It fastens its root low in the ground that it may send forth its top toward heaven. Is it not from humility that it endeavors to rise? But without humility it will not attain to higher things.” Christ is the personification of the wisdom from above, described by James in today’s Epistle as pure, peaceable, and full of good fruits. He is the fulfillment of the son of God described in the Book of Wisdom, delivered to his foes and condemned to a shameful death. He had no need to attain heaven, which was his home, but planted roots on earth so we might attain heaven by the tree of his crucifixion.

The Son of God, explained Paul in his great Christological hymn in Philippians 2, became a man—a servant—“and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). When Jesus referred to the child in the midst of the disciples, he was making a clear connection (lost in the English translation) between “child” and “servant,” which come from the same root word in Aramaic and Greek.

Divine sonship is rooted in humble servanthood. The divine irony is that becoming a child of God is the only means to becoming truly mature and fully human. And by embracing the Passion, we overcome our passions.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 20, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. “Divine sonship is rooted in humble servanthood. The divine irony is that becoming a child of God is the only means to becoming truly mature and fully human. And by embracing the Passion, we overcome our passions”. Agreed. There’s much in revelation that we too often cannot process, for example eternal hell, our free will and requirements for salvation that seem to impinge, God’s unchanging nature, his omniscience and our true independence, and tend to revise to suit ourselves. Becoming a child is an act of trust in God’s goodness. There’s great peace derived in that act of humility.

    • Additionally as mentioned below by Edith trust in someone is a form of faith in a person’s goodness, an act of love. As to trust in Christ, his promise of forgiveness of sin that trust is justice, insofar as we are obliged to give God his due. Complete trust and love.

  2. Forgive me if I express concern about possible interpretations or implications of the title of this article, “By embracing Christ’s Passion, we OVERCOME our passions.”

    The body of the article also states: “Passion is the ANTIDOTE to human passions.”

    I worry about the use of terms phrases as “we overcome” and “the antidote.”

    These suggest to me, and I think possibly to others, that Catholics can and generally do become exactly like Christ in this life.

    I have observed myself and other Catholics I’ve known, and I must report that none of us are even close to being like Christ.

    But what about the Catholic doctrine of the canonized saints? What about the Catholic slogan “the universal call to holiness”?

    I believe that when you look closely at the Catholic doctrine of the canonized saints, we see that it allows that canonized saints continue to sin during their entire lives on earth in the flesh. Canonized saints have been found by a tribunal to have exhibited heroic virtue, and to have had lives oriented toward love of God and Man; but they never stopped sinning while in the flesh.

    I think this is generally indicated in Luke 18:19 when Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except God alone.”

    In Timothy 1:15, St. Paul says, “This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’—and I am the worst of them all.” (He doesn’t say “I WAS” a sinner, but “I AM.”)

    “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” was an expression of William F. Buckley, Jr., borrowing from Eric Voegelin. It was an expression used against Social Justice activists (both Christian and secular) who expected a perfect “civilization of love” (John Paul II; Paul VI) type of society to be achieved prior to the Second Coming of Christ.

    I think there is a comparable danger that Catholics, particularly lay Catholics living and working in the secular world, side-by-side with very worldly people, being often under the leadership and influence of very worldly, fleshly, corrupt leaders, will come to believe that they have attained moral and spiritual perfection, or are the verge of attaining that.

    For most of it is existence, the Church has said plainly that holiness is very difficult and rarely achieved by people living in the hurly-burly secular world as lay people having to work for money, having sex and bearing children, and having to strive and compete against other people and defend against the aggressions, impositions, and insults of other people.

    The anti-Christian philosopher Nietzsche told people it was possible to become an “Overman” (Übermensch), someone who has risen about the gross humanity of the common lot of people. Of course, the Nietzschean “Overman” became concretized in men like Hitler and Mussolini, men who almost everyone now see as being lowly, debased, animalistic, ignoble, dishonest, unprincipled human beings.

    Still, my point is that we Catholics must not be delusional as was Nietzsche, in thinking that we can become “Overman” in a holiness sense of becoming identical to Christ in purity. Even at our best, we humans remain disgusting creatures compared to Christ. I think the Church has taught that pretty clearly during most of it is history (excepting maybe the last 50 years of mass confusion).

    We don’t win the battle against the flesh while in the flesh. While in this life on earth in this age, there is no final solution or final victory over our “lust for power, pursuit of illicit pleasure, and envious grasping for possessions.” (quoting from this article) We fall again and again, which is something that St. Josemaria Escriva teaches in his fine book “The Way” (He adds that the best we can do, and must do, is keep getting back up after we fall, and repent and seek and hope for God’s mercy and forgiveness.)

    And to make matters even worse, many modern people, full of cynicism, nihilism, and Machiavellianism, associate with the Faith and the Church purely as a cover for their fleshly and worldly pursuits. So, there are many people exhibiting fake holiness for the purposes of gaining power, status, fame, glory, illicit pleasures, money, etc.

    We must stand in awe of God, but we must never stand in awe of ourselves or of our human leaders or our group, tribe, party, or worldly nation.

    As I see it, a significant degree of pessimism about oneself and all other people is the only defense against being manipulated by OTHER PEOPLE who are fake, vain, or delusional, and the only defense against being manipulated by OUR OWN fake, vain, or delusional tendencies.

    In today’s world of mass media and the culture of celebrities [in sports, movies, politics, religion], “delusions of grandeur,” vanity, self-worship, narcissism, and hero-worship of humans have run amok, don’t you think?

    So, if we are oriented toward the Supreme Good, we fight on.

    But, in this world, we don’t overcome.

    The song “We Shall Overcome” was a staple of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but to the extent that that song led people to think that something like a worldly utopia of universal brotherly love and perfect social justice was going to be end result of their activism, to that extent that song did harm. I believe see that harm is sadly manifested today in the utopian ideology of the Black Lives Movement.

    In our life in this world, there is no cure-all antidote or cleansing for the poison (original sin) within us. Even the best of us remain hobbled by sin during all the days of our lives in this world.

    “I am a worm.” (Psalm 22:6)

    “I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” (Romans 7:14)

    “LORD my God, no one can compare with you.” (Psalm 40:5)

    • “These suggest to me, and I think possibly to others, that Catholics can and generally do become exactly like Christ in this life.”

      Actually, that is entire point of the Christian life: to become Christ-like and to become by grace what Christ is by his unique divine nature (see 2 Pet 1:3-4).

      “But, in this world, we don’t overcome.”

      Not true. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”—Rom 12:21. And: “Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”—1 Jn 4:4.

      “In our life in this world, there is no cure-all antidote or cleansing for the poison (original sin) within us.”

      Yes, there is: it’s called sanctifying grace; that is, the divine life of God, gifted in baptism (see 1 Pet 3:21) and given again in the other sacraments, so that we can live in Christ and be made perfect:

      Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church. (CCC 1997)

  3. I do believe I failed. I regret that I quibbled over the words “overcome” and “antidote” in my earlier comment on this article. I think most Catholics, even the best and holiest Catholic theologians in the world, would find absolutely nothing objectionable in this fine article by the distinguished writer and thinker, Mr. Carl E. Olson.

    Controversies over the exact effects and remedies of Original Sin have gone on in the Church many times, including those involving Martin Luther and Blaise Pascal. In truth, I am too ill informed about these controversies to be trying to comment on this subject. Furthermore, these matters may be too abstruse to have any practical value for most people.

    I think I was “reading into” this article some extraneous things that bother me.

    What bothers me is that I worry that the post-Vatican II teaching about the “Universal call to holiness” seems to often get understood as a “Declaration of universal holiness.” And I worry that, by means of that false understanding, the Faith and the Church are often turned into a mere instrument of power politics and personal narcissism. (And I should admit and confess that I MYSELF have been guilty of doing this, and surely will do this again.)

    But, whether or not that is or may be a real problem in the Church that is unique to our time, that is really a whole different subject that really had nothing to do with this fine article.

    So, I apologize. LORD have mercy.

    • I reply to you because I felt this way. Even Peter said to Jesus: ” Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man.” Peter denied the Lord but Jesus only wanted him to say: I love your Lord three times. Jesus asked Saint Faustina to give him her misery. It is the devil’s greatest deception to make us struggle with our burden instead of giving it to the Lord. “We must stand in awe of God but we must never stand in awe of ourselves…” Wrong! Christ enters you in Holy Communion and he wants to dwell in you and you in him. You need to make this leap of faith that he forgives you and loves you. Without him we can do nothing; so we look at a crucifix and we know how much he loves every soul. I used to always even confess old sins and my priest said: He has forgiven you, accept it! That is the JOY of the redeemed. Embrace Christ’ passion and rejoice.

  4. “Embracing the passion of Christ”, to follow him. To conquer fear and to trust in him. We trust in him, if we surrender to him. Abp Fulton Sheen said, it is not as important what we do, but what we let him do to us. Embracing Christ’s passion to learn to love like him. “And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” (Col 3:14) Children also sin, but they exhibit trust and obedience; they trust in the security of love. “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5:8)

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