The Gospel as the Great Passage, III: Words and Life

When The Great Passage is halfway through, life kicks in like a tsunami. Editorial machinations, illustrious yet sloppy collaborators, unexpressed feelings, family matters, time jumps. But in the middle of the storm, the dictionary project and the ideal it represents stay the course. But what ideal is that?

“Life.” “Love.” “Purpose.” “Enterprise.” “Death.” These are words, and only words, unless they come alive and shine before us, piercing us with their edges, filling us with their fire, making their weight felt on us. For each of our dictionary researchers, as life becomes words, words become life: that is the open, beating heart of this magnificent show. 

So it is, too, with the Gospel and us, the disciples of Christ. The Word becomes Life in us. 

In my first article, I mentioned my own familial connection with dictionary-writing and the years-long process behind The Great Passage, the dictionary at the heart of the eponymous series, which I compared to the years-long process behind the Gospels at the heart of our faith. Next, I talked about the wordsmiths themselves, their methods and experiences, and how these things illuminate the writers’ choices. Today, I’ll focus on the endgame. Land is in sight, dear readers.

Haruka and love at the center

The Great Passage is a work of love, a love that starts as an undercurrent of care and attention for words that becomes richer and stronger with each pull of the tide and crashing wave. It draws others in, calling to the indifferent. And in time, this love comes alive, incarnate in the lives of the dictionary’s makers.

This project was always intended to produce deep connections. “Without words, you cannot express your thoughts or be able to have any sort of deep understanding of others,” Matsumoto says to Majime early on. Dictionaries are “boats” in which people “find the perfect words to gather the small light floating to the top of the dark waters.”

Words are also “lights, but in the ever-changing world, unable to find the right words, there are those who lead troubled lives caged with their own trapped feelings.” Such is Majime, quite obviously. And less obviously—beneath the stereotypes, first impressions, and facades—such is the rest of the cast too. And maybe, at least at some points in our lives, so too are we.

So The Great Passage is a rescue mission, a transformative journey in search of a safe haven, and the hope for a way to create a true bridge between hearts, oriented towards the future. And we see it working. So far, I’ve done my best to keep things vague, but the time has come for spoilers.

The show asks us many questions. Will Matsumoto and Kōhei be able to get anyone (let alone us, the audience) invested enough in their unique dream? Smooth Nishioka and contemplative Majime might as well live on different planets. Will they be able to work together? Midori Kishibe, the new girl, is put off by Majime’s crazy antics. Will she get to know him, as we have? With each question, we get a “surprisingly, yes.” And more than that, we believe it too.

One of the conflicts, though, stands out among the rest. In episode three, Majime is awestruck by an encounter under the full moon. It feels like a vision, but the next episode confirms that the kind, clever, beautiful woman who looks into his eyes and wants to know more is real and has a name: she is Haruka.

Majime cannot even open his mouth in her presence, as their resulting awkwardness is portrayed in all its anime glory, somewhere between Nichijou, Kids on the Slope, and OreGairu. But they are not kids: they are adults. Haruka’s image fills Majime with powerful, passionate, complicated feelings and thoughts. Will he be able to convey them? And when he tries, will she understand? 

Haruka, you see, is at the center of everything. Nishioka’s help at this time transforms his working relationship with Majime into a lifelong friendship. The team’s support in this instance makes them a family to Majime. And in time, Majime’s letter to Haruka will be a link to the next generation.

At the center of the four Gospels is also a person, Jesus of Nazareth. And like Majime with Haruka, the evangelists also found in Him a Man with traits that truly defy the possibilities of human language, Someone Who blew their minds, changing their entire worldview, and Whom, on top of that, every single one of them loved deeply.

Introducing every nation to Him and His words must have felt like an impossible task. And yet, we are talking of a Man that literally could enable you to walk on water. If He asked you to do something, you would discover that you could. And thus, the task would be completed, bearing new fruit in every generation.

I believe that this is still the case. No matter if you happen to be an outsider to the whole thing, like Nishioka or…St. Luke?

Nishioka and the Gospel according to Luke

Let me introduce you to Masashi Nishioka, a man who is nothing like Majime. You have probably met him a thousand times already: at school, at University, in your social circles, at work. He’s that young man—smart but not brilliant, well-disposed yet sly—who reads the room and tries to get by, absorbing and interiorizing his environment and making the most of it.

Nishioka goes home each day without any thoughts about the meaning of words or human connection troubling his mind. He longs to spend time with his girlfriend, gain prestige, and possibly earn more than he does now. He flirts, chats, jokes around, and makes fun suggestions. And when he’s not with his coworkers, he likes to remind people that he won’t be in the dictionary department forever.

The Great Passage is a demanding passion project, so Nishioka looks like a possible antagonist. The passion and the care of the lovers of words are foreign to him, and some bitterness rises in him when Majime becomes a star researcher. Will Nishioka’s indifference compromise the project with his carelessness? Will his jealousy poison the team?

Fortunately, this playful, executive-leaning, worldly young man has, despite everything, an open heart. Surrounded by so much love and passion, he gradually interiorizes them too. Nishioka will probably never have the same love or instinct for words the other three members have always had, but he will always be a vital part of The Great Passage, even after he leaves. Faithful to the very end. 

And thus, he’s there to help the starstruck Majime when the latter meets the love of his life.

When we first meet St. Luke, he is described (Col. 4:14) as “uncircumcised,” not a Jew. The other three Evangelists had probably been raised in the love of the God of Israel, the reverence for His word and the hope of the Messiah. Luke, in contrast, was one of the goyim, the foreigners who get by in this world and worship the idols they make themselves.

His style is consonant with Greek culture and the medical training that the letter to the Colossians mentions. (At the time of the Apostles, there were well-known medical schools in Tarsus, Alexandria, and Athens.) His precise knowledge of the eastern Mediterranean suggests that he might have been a doctor aboard a ship. And, at some point, he met Saul of Tarsus, better known as St. Paul.

Jesus of Nazareth opened the salvation of Israel to people like St. Luke, to Jews and Gentiles alike. In the days of the early Church, St. Paul, the Pharisee-persecutor turned disciple, would insist on this aspect of the teachings of Christ and help others defend its implications clearly. This effort, aided by the Holy Spirit, would bear fruit in the first apostolic council, the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15:1.

This “Apostle to Gentiles” had a team who accompanied him on his adventurous travels around the Empire (“Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke my fellow laborers,” he says in Philemon 24). And like Nishioka, Luke stuck with Paul and his evangelistic project to the end. During his last imprisonment, St. Paul would write: “Make haste to come to me quickly. For Demas hath left me, loving this world… Only Luke is with me” (2 Tim 4:7-11).

Luke’s Gospel reveals the deep influence of St. Paul on its writer: it shares a vocabulary with St. Paul’s writing, with 101 terms used in common and found only in St. Luke and the Pauline Epistles and with structures that parallel the writing in those texts.

But St. Luke had other sources, too. This brings us to the Greek particle terei,” from “teros,” a guard or watchman. When applied to non-material things, “-terei” means “to keep inside, to keep in memory.”

Two instances of its use in the Gospel of Luke occur with the words synterei and dietērei. Combining “-terei” with “syn”, which means “with” or “together,” synterei means “to keep everything in memory,” while dietērei (“die-“ means a variety of things, including “through”) has the connotation of deeply ingraining, recording, or treasuring a memory in one’s own heart. In Luke 2:19 and 2:51, both terms are applied to St. Mary’s contemplation of the events surrounding her Son, Jesus.

This implies, firstly, that St. Mary (or someone who knew her well enough to explain her intimate impressions and attitudes) is one of St. Luke’s sources. But this intense contemplation, continued throughout the apostolic age, is also highlighted as a model of discipleship, in contrast with the doubtful Zechariah from earlier in the chapter.

In guarding, treasuring, and pondering the present events and the words of Scripture, St. Mary gradually finds their true, interconnected meaning. We find a similar idea in Luke 24:13, where the resurrected Christ (incognito) patiently explains to two disciples on the road to Emmaus that they have been rash and foolish in ignoring these connections. As He explains Scripture, their hearts start burning inside their chests.

In the show, the letter Majime sends Haruka is full of contemplation and passion, but she is unable to decipher it until Majime heeds Nishioka’s advice and adapts his style to her. Nishioka’s heart, previously indifferent, is now devoted to his word-loving friends, becoming a bridge between them and the still indifferent world. 

Nishioka won’t forget. Years later, he will show this very letter to newcomer Midori, and she will understand Majime and get on board. The fire is also ignited in her heart. Not unlike Nishioka, St. Luke provides us with a path to delve more deeply into the life and mission of Jesus. A path of attentiveness, gradual connection, and love.

Professor Matsumoto and the Gospel according to John

“One works because they are compelled to do so by some higher power.” At the end of the show (more spoilers!), these words of Professor Matsumoto acquire their full weight when the old visionary and originator of The Great Passage dies just before his dream sees the light of day. His loving, gentle presence has guided everyone to shore, but he won’t be there with them to enjoy the view.

This is a risky choice on the part of the showrunners, isn’t it? Won’t we end this journey on a somber note? No. Because, as Majime and Haruka, slightly older now, walk around on that fine spring day; as Nishioka and his kids show up; and as Kohei talks to Majime, their bonds with one another speak to the triumph of The Great Passage.

Even if Professor Matsumoto doesn’t see the realization of the dictionary in material terms, he sees its fruits, its meaning incarnate. He sees the deep connections achieved through the love of words. What he hoped for has begun to happen, and there is even more light ahead. Just so, was, in all probability, the experience of St. John the Evangelist.

After a lifetime dealing with dictionaries, and knowing their history in detail, Matsumoto had a unique perspective on the project. Similarly, St. John writes from a different perspective compared to the other Gospels, which are collectively called the “synoptics”—a term that underlines their shared perspective (“syn-” or “together,” this time united with “-optikós,” “to see,” as in “optics,” meaning “united perspective”). 

St. John makes clear that he is a direct witness of Christ, but he writes much later than the other Gospel writers. Plus, he does so with the other Gospels on hand, completing what they have omitted, adding Christ’s discourses and working out some of their implications. His is (to make a risky comparison) the Gospel equivalent of Fate/Zero.

When explaining the crucifixion, John 19:35 says: “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.” Which first Christians were direct witnesses to the Passion? The authorship of St. John the Apostle is confirmed by our old friend St. Irenaeus, whose teacher, St. Polycarp, was the disciple of…old man St. John. 

“Later, John, the disciple of the Lord who rested on His breast,” writes Irenaeus, “also wrote a Gospel, while he was residing at Ephesus in Asia.” St. John complements the other Gospels, adding deep theological reflections and important incidents from the perspective of an eyewitness who’s familiar with Jewish customs.

John’s Gospel is deep and majestic, full of long discourses and miracles that are considered in the text. It shows us the theological reflection of the early church, guided by the Holy Spirit. The young apostle has become an old man, and he is alone. His companions have been martyred, beginning with John’s elder brother, St. James.

Teaching the new generation of believers, the apostle refers to himself in the text as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He introduces Jesus Christ, though, with a concept that brings Matsumoto to mind: John calls Christ the “Logos,” which means “Word.”

Jesus of Nazareth, John says, is “the Word of God.” “Logos,” though, means more than simply “word.” It might refer to “reason,” “meaning,” “wisdom,” and “number,” and we use it in a lot of contexts, from “Logic” to “Biology,” “Archeology” or “Criminology” to “Logarithm” and “Dialogue.” Our rational mind, you see, is our “logos.”

What does this mean? The late Benedict XVI (who also brings Matsumoto to mind) highlighted this description, detailing three meanings of “Logos” when applied to Christ. It strictly denotes that He is the Second Person of the Trinity, as John repeats throughout his Gospel. He is One with the Father (John 14:9), and just as our words reflect who we are, so too does he: Jesus, the Word, is God Himself speaking.

Christ being the “Logos” also means that He is the Truth, the meaning of the universe. Everything that was created points to Him. He is the deepest foundation of reality, the true point of connection of everything. The “cornerstone,” if you will. “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.”, says St. John.

Lastly, “Logos” denotes that Christ’s entire life is a message for us, a reveal, and light for our darkness. Though focused on words, The Great Passage is really about what those words mean. How they unite us and help us to love in a dark, confusing world. The Gospel of John, the old apostle who died shortly after composing it, shows us that Jesus is the Word and the Light. That, in itself, is the “Gospel.”

Here comes a bonus track. When St. Paul uses the word “Gospel” (evangelion), he means both the words of the message (“gospel” is an official report of good news) and also something more: “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16); what he has “fulfilled” (peplērōkenai) by preaching and letting Christ accomplish things through him (Romans 15:15-17); and the narrative or drama of God’s action in Christ, including in the present (Romans 11:28). Including us.

The hopes of our struggling humanity point to the light that is anticipated by works of true love, like The Great Passage. The words that resonate more deeply in us point, deep down, to the ultimate Word, and in Him, they become life abundant. The Gospels are a living narrative in which we ourselves become characters, one that overcomes death itself like a powerful wave. 

After the ocean, the words of this narrative show the shore. After the winter, the spring. And, after the Great Passage, they show love, shared victory, and home.

The Great Passage can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

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