Why Is It Called “Passion” Week? Etymology to the Rescue

Jesus CrossThis week, we celebrate and remember the final week of Jesus’s life and ministry before his death and resurrection, both events being cornerstones of the Christian faith. It is often called Passion Week, and the events leading up to his death are often called the Passion of the Christ (just like the movie!). But a few people might wonder… why it is called Passion Week? The word passion as generally understood today, at least, refers to a strong emotion, usually connected to romantic or sexual desires, but also to a strong gravitation towards something (e.g., when you’re passionate about something).

Jesus probably did feel strongly about his impending death and resurrection. But that’s not why we call it Passion Week.

Attributing this week of remembrance to the English word passion has a long history, much longer than any of us have been alive. It dates back at least to the twelfth century (Old English), and stems from the Late Latin (3rd to 6th or 7th century) noun passio, which meant “suffering” or “enduring.” The Latin Vulgate, for example, contains instances of passio (and its cognates) to refer to suffering or enduring. By the time of Shakespeare (and the KJV), passion was used to refer to a strong romantic or sexual desire.

However, the nomenclature of “passion” referring to the sufferings of Christ that week continued and continues to remain, reflecting the tendency of the etymology of a word to retain its past usage in certain (specialized) contexts.

Here is an example where etymology sheds light on the meanings of words. In the case of Passion Week, we see that the common usage of passion today does not reflect its contemporary meaning, but rather, the etymological sense is retained when found in a specialized context like Christian holidays and collocated with other words like Christ or week. As much as etymology has been abused in the study of the original languages of the Bible, this is a case where etymology helps us understand why current usages of words (like passion) are still used today, outside of their usual meanings.

— David I. Yoon

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