Most preaching derives from one’s contexts, that is, from the personal experiences of the preacher directed to a gathered community at a given time. Christ’s Passion, Our Passions, by Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, provides seven sermons preached for the congregation of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Good Friday, 2002. In this context, the author explains how reflection on the cross following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, can transform individuals into people willing to suffer and love as Christ did and to be involved in environmental causes.
Rev. Bullitt-Jonas serves as priest associate for All Saints Church in Brookline, Mass., and is also the author of Holy Hunger, a spiritual reflection on her recovery from an eating disorder. She holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University and an M. Div. (1988) from the Episcopal Divinity School. She has also studied in the Spiritual Guidance program of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation (1988).
Her personal struggles, along with the shaping influence of the late Henri Nouwen and Tilden Edwards of the Shalem Institute, are reflected in the pages of her current volume. The sermons were delivered throughout the “Three Hours’ Service,” a traditional service in many mainline Protestant and Catholic churches designed to focus the participants attention on the last words of Jesus.
The book begins with a helpful introductory chapter, explaining the context in which these sermons were delivered and the format of the book. Each chapter averages 11 pages and follows the same sequence. The last “word” of Jesus to be discussed is written, with the context from the Gospel in parenthesis listed below. Bulitt-Jonas’ sermon comprises the body of the chapter. At the end of each sermon, she lists several questions for prayer and reflection. These suggestions are based on three mystical traditions. She draws from (1) Ignatian Contemplation; (2) Lectio Divina; (3) Grounding in the Cross. The third requires some explanation. She adapted this method from a traditional pattern of prayer from the region of Tibet.
This brief treatment of these poignant words on the cross offers excellent insights into this body of New Testament literature. She fulfills her goals of helping us learn to “hang on to the last words of Christ when he is dying.” Instead of probing the cross, she indeed “lets the cross probe us” with her inviting, careful reflection on each statement. Each sermon is to be commended for its personal insights, contextual illustrations, and sound exegetical thoughts. She writes transparently about the death of her daughter, relates the scriptures using illustrations pertinent to her congregation, and carefully explains each New Testament passage with sound biblical teaching.
The book stands on its own weight as a tool to be used by teachers and ministers for worship, public studies, and private reflection. A few exegetical considerations would strengthen the work. In chapter 4, she discusses, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” She fails to acknowledge, however, that this statement strongly echoes Psalm 22.
Secondly, the author has written for the purpose of encouraging private reflection on the cross but has provided sermons spoken in a gathered, worshiping community of believers. While helpful to reflect on sermons privately, I find it more informative to study the sermons in light of the same context in which they were delivered. She alludes to several worship suggestions in her introduction but leaves the reader wanting to know how she would have fleshed out these thoughts in her context.
Thirdly, while not the focus of the book, she alludes twice to her concerns about the environment, a cause for which she cares deeply. She does not explain exegetically, however, the important connection she sees between Christ’s suffering and the pains the creation feels at the moment of incarnation and crucifixion. Her own passion for environmental justice colors some of her exegetical insights at these points and distracts from the application of the sermon. Further analysis of this important topic would add further weight to her arguments.
Thoughtful believers will find Bullitt-Jonas’ words as a welcome drink of water during a very painful season of the Christian year. Ministers and lay leaders alike have gained a new tool for helping the church to become passionate about Christ’s own concerns at the point of his death.
Bill Shiell is senior pastor at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas