Christian Midrash: The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord

Given my staple here as a writer who submits to and defends the authority of the Catholic Church, I am taking a bit of a step back in these four articles where I will explore some random theological ideas. The articles are based on a paper I wrote in undergrad in which I hope to take what good has come from Midrashic texts and blend it with Christianity. In my first article I explained what Midrash is and how Christian Midrash can exist. Now I will go into what I see to be a form of Christian Midrash, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord, by Anne Catherine Emmerich. In my third article I will address how Midrash can function as theology. In my final article I will discuss the limitations of using Midrash, and how it can be used by the Church today.


With the understanding of Midrash as presented in the previous article, let’s look at Anne Catherine Emmerich’s narrative to see how it can be understood as Midrash. Emmerich allegedly experienced visions that recounted Jesus’ suffering and death. In her visions transcribed by Clemens Brentano in The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord, Emmerich focuses on Christ’s intense suffering in a bloody and graphic depiction. [1] She records Christ after the scourging saying that “his body was entirely covered with black, blue, and red marks; the blood was trickling down…” and writes similar accounts of Christ’s suffering run throughout the entire work.  

Aside from her reflections on Christ’s passion and death, she argues that Christ is the ultimate Pascal sacrifice by contrasting him with ritual sacrifices in the temple. She writes, “thus two paths were formed – one leading to…Jewish law, the other leading the Altar of Grace [the cross].” The anti-Semitism of the story should not be understated; there exists an irony in the relation between Emmerich’s anti-Semitism and the Midrashic approach I argue her text takes. The stories and traditions she includes in the text function as the rabbi’s conversations in Midrash. Emmerich takes verses from biblical texts to manage areas of scripture that are problematic. In this way, Emmerich’s work is a form of Christian Midrash because it takes the Christian sacred canon in the same way the Midrashic works in Judaism do, though it does not focus on the Torah. Emmerich approaches the various questions and dilemmas that arise in the Gospel narratives and seeks to reconcile them or choose one reading over another to emphasize her own interpretation of the events.

Given that the four gospel narratives have several distinctions among them, it is impossible to recount the tale of Christ’s death without picking which details one chooses over others. To illustrate the gospel distinctions, we look at the centurion’s words to Christ on the Cross. Emmerich names him Abenader, perhaps roughly based on an old tradition, and chooses the Matthean accountover Luke or Mark. Even so, she adds to Matthew by recording Abenader saying, “Blessed be the Most High God, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob; indeed this man was the Son of God.” Further, Emmerich goes on to say that Abenader became a follower of Christ, a common theme with many of the characters in the Dolorous Passion. 

Emmerich made another liberty in her approach to the Gospel narratives involving Pontius Pilot. She reconciles the different conversations recorded between Jesus and Pilot in the gospels by placing them at two separate times in The Dolorous Passion.  Emmerich constantly adds whole sections of conversation not recorded in the gospels to increase context and convey her own influence in her dialogue with the older texts. She takes Matthew 27:51-53, in which many of those buried rise from the dead when Christ dies, and creates eight pages of apocalyptic, zombie-esque scenes. Many, including Pontius Pilot, run around trying to escape the dead following them.  The Emmerich’s choices point to a general emphasis on pain, grandeur, and historical significance of Christ’s Passion. 

Emmerich further incorporates Catholic theology and tradition within the text of her work. As with any Midrash, the views of the writer are just as much a part of the intertextual dialogue as the sacred scripture itself. The influence of sacred Catholic tradition, which holds authority in and of itself, further compliments the spiritual mission of Christian Midrash and provides a hermeneutic with which Emmerich writes. Midrash does not just seek to fix gaps, but also seeks to bring different verses together to see what new understanding might be created. 

Emmerich does this extensively, in light of her Catholic faith, to create a reading of scripture that includes the sacraments, theology, and doctrine of the Church. For instance, Emmerich explains that one of the reasons that the Apostles were so unwitting of Christ’s imminent death in the garden of Gethsemane was the “spirit of enthusiasm and devotion with… the Blessed Sacrament.” Referring to the Eucharist received at the last supper, Emmerich uses the Catholic doctrine as an explanation for a small question arising from the gospel. A better example of Catholic influence would be the understanding of Christ as the ultimate Passover lamb. Emmerich brings together Exodus 12:1-20, in which the blood and consumption of lambs protects the households of the Hebrews, and the death of Christ with Jesus saying that “the sacrifice of Moses and the figure of the Pascal Lamb were about to receive their accomplishment” in him.  This passage may not appear surprising since the Church has taught such a reading of Christ’s sacrifice for centuries. 

However, the passage began as a Midrashic bringing together of two different biblical verses. One of the aspects that drives a wedge between the notion of Christianity and Midrash is how doctrine can influence, perhaps distort, the practice of Midrash. This argument ignores the fact that this doctrine was formed through the bringing together of various verses in Scripture. I will address this point in my final article.

[1] There is some debate over whether Emmerich wrote this herself, or her name was placed on it, or her work was edited. I do not intend to make any statement on this debate. For simplicity, I refer to the work as Emmerich’s.


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