Passion: Flowers, torture, death, and butterflies

“I remember him with a dark passionflower in his hand, looking at it as no one has ever looked at such a flower, though they might look from the twilight of day until the twilight of night, for a whole life long.”

Jorge Luis Borges

If ever there was a flower worthy of looking at from twilight to twilight, for a whole life long; it would be the passionflower.  The flowers have an interesting, complex design with bright, exciting colors but that is only a small part of their allure.  There is nothing simple about a passionflower.  Every aspect about this plant is complicated and profound.  Passionflowers originate from Central America.  Historically, the plant was used by the indigenous people as a medicine and appreciated for its beauty.  When the Spanish ‘discovered’ the plant and named it passiflora, they saw it as confirmation that their efforts to dominate and convert the Native people was blessed by God.  The beautiful flower, once admired for its beauty and used to treat anxiety and insomnia was used to describe the torture and death of Jesus and as justification and a tool for conversion against the indigenous people.

Passionflowers are stunningly beautiful because of their strange structure.  There are more than five hundred species in the passifloraceae family all with the same configuration.  Passionflowers were given the name because their design was seen as symbolic of the experiences of Jesus and his crucifixion.  The lesson of the crucifixion is a crucial teaching in Christianity.  “The followers of Jesus came very early to the conclusion that he had lived in order to die, that his death was not the interruption of his life at all but its ultimate purpose” (Pelikan, 95).  This important event of Jesus’ life was recorded in great detail in the first four books of the New Testament and much of this detail can be seen on a passionflower.  The five petals and five sepals, together, represent the ten loyal apostles.  The corona filaments remind one of the crown of thorns.  The leaves look like the spears used by the soldiers and the tendrils like their whips.  The stigma, has three parts like three nails.  The anther has five parts which represents the five wounds Jesus suffered on the cross, four from nails and one from the lance.  The chalice-shaped ovary and stalk bring the vinegar wine given to Jesus on a sponge into the story.  Even the aroma of the flower is reminiscent of the spices used to prepare the body for burial.  The fruit represent humanity – the fruit of the passion, salvation.  Finally, I argue that the butterfly species, Heliconiinae (longwings), represent Christians.  Just like the Spanish missionaries, I will use the passionflower to appreciate and understand more about the Jesus’ final day and legacy.

To discover more about the passion, I turned to the gospels that recorded Jesus’ life and death – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  In some details, these gospels are the same but in some critical moments, they are very different.  Jesus’ final time on earth is well documented by these four men.  Mark and Luke were not direct followers of Jesus.  Their accounts are from the memories of others.  Mark primarily records Peter’s descriptions of the events and Luke receives most of his information from Mary, Jesus’ mother.  Matthew was a follower of Jesus and present during the events he describes as was John.  John’s gospel stands out as the most different from the other three.  While there are several small differences between the gospels, John’s accounts tend to be the most unique.  This leads to the question of why this book is so different.  John’s history was the last written, meaning the most likely to be distorted by time and memory.  Also, at the time of writing, John was the last living disciple with no one else left alive to challenge his account.  This is interesting to think about and notice as we look at the aspects represented with the Passionflower plant.

Petals, Sepals, and Apostles

The passionflower has five petals and five sepals.  The ten represent the loyal apostles.  When I first read this, I became confused because there are twelve apostles but they don’t just represent the apostles – they represent the loyal apostles at the time of Jesus’ death.  Both Peter and Judas proved to be disloyal to Jesus on his darkest day. Jesus predicted that his apostles would abandon him.  He knew that Judas would betray him and Peter would disown him.  The apostles were told of the upcoming events.  They could accept that Jesus would be arrested and sentenced to death.  They accepted that he would come back from the dead after three days even though they weren’t quite sure what that meant.  They couldn’t accept that one among them would betray Jesus, Peter couldn’t believe he would deny Jesus, and none of them could even think that they would abandon him but they did.

Judas literally sold Jesus to the enemies for thirty silver coins.  As soon as Jesus and the apostles arrived in the region of Caesarea Phillipi, “he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ” (Matt 16:20).  Like the others, Judas did not believe when Jesus predicted that he would betray him yet, the very next day, Judas led the armed crowd to Jesus and even pointed him out by giving him a kiss.  Jesus told him what he would do, he told him the consequences, and even told him he would have remorse but this did nothing to soften the blows of Judas’ actions.  Judas’ betrayal led to the arrest and later the crucifixion of Jesus.  “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders.  ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood’” (Matthew 27:3-4).  After throwing the money into the temple, Judas hung himself.    This is based mostly on the story according to Matthew.  The way that Judas betrays Jesus is different in the accounts.  This differences, while seemingly insignificant have a profound difference psychologically.  In Matthew, Judas solicits the chief priests to betray Jesus and in John, it is almost as though he is selected.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Judas has arranged a signal with the leaders of the armed crowd he brings so they will know who to go after, a kiss. “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48).  But in John, the betrayal is not so dramatic, he simply leads the men to the place and Jesus stands up to them and directly identifies himself as the one they are seeking.  In the first three, Judas betrays Jesus with a sign of intimacy, making the betrayal that much more of an affront.  Also, he betrays Jesus before the last supper in these accounts but in John, is seems almost as though Jesus selects Judas to betray him during the last supper.   In Matthew 26:47-50 and Mark 14:43-46 when Jesus is arrested, the others flee (as Jesus foretold at the last supper) but not in the other two books.  Finally, it is only in Matthew that we learn that Judas has great remorse and hangs himself after returning the money.  The other three do not mention Judas past Jesus’ arrest.

Peter’s betrayal was not as extreme as Judas but his was more than an abandonment.  Peter denies even knowing Jesus.  John 13:18, Matthew 26:74, Mark 14:72, Luke 22:61, and John 18:27 all relate the story the same way.  Peter is asked three times if he is with Jesus and he claims all three times to not know him, immediately after the third denial, a rooster crows.  Peter does not just say he does not know Jesus, he becomes angry with those that question him as if he is above association with Jesus.  “Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.” While he immediately regretted denying him, the fact remains that Jesus accurately predicted to Peter that he would not remain loyal.  Judas’ betrayal and remorse were much more extreme but Peter also felt his disloyalty and remorse and thus was not included with the loyal apostles of the sepals and petals.  Later, in John 21:15-19, Peter is reinstated as an apostle by the reincarnated Jesus.

Crown of thorns and the corona filaments

One of the most striking connections for the passionflower and Jesus’ passion is the corona filaments and the crown of thorns. In Matthew 27:28-30, it is written, “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and them twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head.  They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.”  Mark 15:17 states, “They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him.”  The crown of thorns is a notable detail for the passion, it was meant to inflict pain physically and psychologically.  The corona on the flower is also a notable aspect for the flower.  Whether the filaments are straight or curly, it is apparent that when thinking of the passion, they represent the crown.

Tendril-like lashes and Spear-like Leaves

The passion plant has a large amount of curly tendrils along its vines and elongated, spear-shaped leaves.  The tendrils represent the whips the soldiers used when flagellating Jesus.  The lashes were a part of the torture Jesus suffered before making his way up the hill to be hung on the cross.  The leaves remind one of the spears of the centurions but it also brings up a specific lance.  There is no mention of the lance and the fifth wound in Matthew, Mark, or Luke but John writes “But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water” (John 19:33-34).  He continues to validate this statement and claim that “these things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled” (John 19:36).  This is something curious to John, maybe because he realized the great amount of discrepancies between his accounts and those of other but he often seems to need to validate his version as true.

Stigma and Anthers, Nails and Wounds

In crucifixion, a person is attached to the cross with three nails; one near each wrist and one that pierced through above both ankles.  The three nails are symbolized in the flower as the three stigma.  The wounds for the nails equals four but when the stab from the lance is added, there are five wounds.  These are represented by the five anthers below the three stigma.  This fifth wound, the wound of the lance is only described in John.  In the other three, Jesus’ departure from earth is much more dramatic.  The three major differences in John are Jesus’ words, his engagement with wine and his departure.  All three things are related with each other and with the lance, wounds, and wine – leaves, anthers, and ovary.

Sponge, gall, vinegar, wine, and ovary stalk

There are two versions for Christ’s death, the one for Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the one recorded in John.  Both are in the New Testament so both are equally true since all history is based on memories.  I will relate the story of the first three then the story as told by John.  There are three events to look at here: the last supper, the offering of wine to Jesus from the soldiers, and finally, the wine offered to Jesus on a stalk and sponge – the image which resembles the ovary with its stalk and sponge like tip.

During the last supper, Jesus gave his apostles wine saying “Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:27-29). John has an extensive, detailed goodbye from Jesus before his arrest but there is no mention of a last supper, let alone the first communion.

Next when Jesus arrives at the place called Golgotha where he is to be nailed to the cross, the soldiers offer Jesus wine and he refuses to drink.  It was Jewish tradition to give wine mixed with herbs to dull the senses to those about to be executed.  In Matthew, this wine is mixed with gall.  In Mark, it is myrrh. In Luke, it is simple wine vinegar they offer while taunting him to save himself.  John does not have this incident with wine included in his telling of the crucifixion.  I feel this detail is important for two reasons.  The first is because Jesus said he would not drink wine until he was in his father’s kingdom in the first three gospels so any offer of wine is more important to those books.  Second, in the first two, the wine was mixed with herbs that would dull the senses – both mental and physical.  Jesus could have saved himself some of the pain of crucifixion but he would have not been fully present.  Jesus knew that he had to fully experience the suffering in order to fulfill his purpose for life, a sacrificial death.

The last encounter written with wine is also Jesus’ final moment.  This last moment is recorded similarly in Matthew and Mark but different in Luke and profoundly different in John.  In Matthew and Mark, Jesus cries out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46). This line is mirrors Psalm 22:1                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”  Upon hearing this, the people leave Jesus but one runs to fill a sponge on a stick with wine vinegar to offer to Jesus.  In both accounts, the wine is offered and Jesus dies, there is no comment on whether Jesus drinks from the sponge.  Finally, Jesus lets out a loud cry and his spirit leaves the earth.  At this moment, a series of events occurs causing a centurion to comment that Jesus was truly the Son of God.

Luke’s account of the death are less dramatic and much more concise.  “Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.  The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”  When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away” (Luke 23:46-48).

Finally, we have John’s version of Jesus’ death.  “Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.  When he received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:28-30).  In this version, Jesus not only drinks the wine vinegar, he requests it but since there is no covenant not to drink wine in John’s story, this is not against anything Jesus says.  These stories all tell of the same event in their own remembrances but I would not have realized the importance of the wine in Jesus’ death had it not been for the passionflower.

Fruit of passion

The next part of the plant that has significance for the passion of the gospels is the fruit.  Jesus suffered and died for a reason.  The fruit of his actions was the salvation of humanity.  The fruit of the passionflower represents the fruit of the passion since it is literally the fruit of the passionflower that detailed the passion.  “The church, with the functions that it fulfills in the name of Christ, is nothing other than the body of Christ itself (cf. Rom 12:4-5).  This fact could not have been prefigured in the First Testament, because if is not the result only of Christ’s coming to earth but ultimately the fruit of his death and resurrection, both of which were unforeseen” (Grelot, 145).  The symbolism for this could not be more appropriate.  In Mark, Jesus says “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).  The fruit of the passion is the ransom of many, humanity or seeds for the future.

Spices for the Dead

Once Jesus was dead, he was entombed. The aroma of the passionflower is said to be similar to the spices used during Jesus’ time for burial.  Matthew and Mark do not mention spices in Jesus’ burial, just clean linen but Luke and John have specific detail about preparation for burial.  “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it.  Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes” (Luke 23:55-56). The major difference with Luke and John is not the spices but the persons responsible for preparing the body.  “Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.  Taking Jesus’ body the tow of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.  This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs” (John 19:39-40).

Christian Butterflies

Passion flowers have their own species of butterfly, the Heliconius butterfly, often referred to as a longwing butterfly or passion-flower butterfly.  “Biologists suspect that the vigorous interaction between the vine and the butterfly over millions of years may have been a driving force in each group’s evolution. There are some 600 species of passion vine in the New World, and 40 species of Heliconius. It may be that the vines diversified first, buttressed by their cyanide defense mechanism against the usual plant eaters” (Wade). Both the plant and butterfly produce cyanide-laden chemicals, which is part of what ties these species together and why they have so much interaction without interference of other species.

The significance of this relationship with butterfly and plant has to do especially with what sets these butterflies apart.  Christians are made separate through their faith and the butterflies are unique because of their relationship with the plant.  They are saved through communion, symbolically eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus Christ.  Heliconius butterflies are the only butterflies that eat pollen.  All other butterflies merely drink nectar and other liquids through a tube.  Heliconius butterflies can actually eat pollen and drink nectar. They eat and drink from the Christ plant and the result is that they live a longer life than average butterflies.  Most species of butterfly experience maturity for a week or two but Heliconius butterflies often live up to eight months in the wild. 

These butterflies are intelligent and aggressive.  Their adaptations have made them incredibly prolific in number.  Their main competition is other species in their family.  The fruit of the passion may be humanity but the benefactors are the Christians.  Fruit is eaten but butterflies live.  Humanity is only able to take advantage of Christ’s sacrifice through Christ.  They must become Christian.  The goal of Christians is to ‘spread the word’ – make more Christians.  The goal of the Heliconius is to spread the species and create more butterflies. 

Matthew concludes with Jesus telling his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:19-20).  In Luke, the conclusion is a joyful one following Jesus’ ascension “they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  And they stayed continually at the temple praising God” (24:52-53).  Mark, Jesus says “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (16:15-16). This shows that it is the truly only the Christian that benefits from Jesus’ sacrifice. Equally important, the last sentence of Mark says, “Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his work by the signs that accompanied it” (Mark 16:20).  This brings us back to the beginning of this paper to the history of our strange flower.  The Spanish saw this flower as one of these signs sent by the Lord to confirm their work.  It is a validation and validation is how John decides to end his gospel, validation and expansion.  John, always different from the rest ends his book validating what is written and saying that there is so much more to tell.  “Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that eve the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (21:25).  I will take my cue from John and conclude the same way.  There are many other levels of symbolism between Jesus and the passion plant as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. 


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