Saturday, April 10, 2004

Good Friday @ the Movies: The Passion of the Christ

Dear Kari:

I normally would look for a Good Friday service to attend. But on this occasion, I decided to see the controversial Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ, this past Friday evening.

I'd be curious to hear what you thought of the film if you have seen it.

Most of my friends have seen it and when I asked them if they would be willing to join me, they said, you should go see it but it is intense and I'm not sure I want to see it a second time.

In the end, I managed to find one friend who had not seen the film and had not made other plans for the evening.

As a Protestant Christian, I believe that God demonstrated love by sending Jesus to Earth for our salvation and Jesus suffering and death on the Cross pays for humanity's sin and the Resurrection affirms the victory over sin and death. Thus, I go into the film with this theological understanding.

This truth is told in the Scriptures and has been re-told in paintings, stained glass, altar pieces, music, drama and film. Gibson's work will probably join the list of art works regarded as powerful and creative expositions of the Gospel story.

I'll try to share my impressions of the film without giving too much away though I imagine you and most of our readers have seen the film.

Indeed, the film is as brutal, grisly and traumatic as people say it is. The flogging of Jesus and the Crucifixion sequences are horrifying. Critics of the film have said that Gibson overdid it. Indeed, I do not recommend the film for young children and adults who are extremely impressionable. However, having said that, I am recommending anyone who wants to explore the Christian faith to see the film because it is more than just two hours of Jesus suffering as there are flashbacks to the teaching of Jesus and other moments on the road to the Cross that tell a powerful tale of good and evil and love and redemption.

I am concerned that people are shying away from the film because of the violence. The fact of the matter is that the Romans were ruthless. I suspect people who buy into the spirit of this age that tends to minimize, relativize or even outright deny the reality of evil will be terribly discomforted by the suffering shown on the screen because it is all to vivid an argument against a casual attitude toward evil: evil is done to Jesus and He bares it because of our evil.

In Christian theology, the point is not the violence itself but rather the suffering Jesus willingly endured to effect our redemption. The suffering was not pointless.

Dennis Prager has made the comment that Jews will see the film as Jews killing Jesus and that Christians will see Jesus as dying for individual sin.

Indeed, as I watched the movie, I didn't think for a minute about fixing blame on any of the characters in the film. Instead, I thought of myself and how my sin is being born by Jesus. I saw people to my left and right sobbing as the film unfolded probably moved as I was that Jesus would willingly take onto Himself our punishment.

Gibson must be credited with placing the physical suffering into a parallel cosmic and spiritual battle between good and evil. He has done this with the device of having Satan periodically appear in the form of a woman with a masculine voice. The actress is slightly spooky but not repulsive.

There is also the battle of good and evil within each human heart. Throughout the film, there is this sense of a cosmic tug of war taking place. There are Jewish characters who blindly go along or even advocate killing Jesus but others who recognize things are not the way they are supposed to be. Likewise, there are many Roman characters who behave sadistically while a few recognize more is going on than just the death of one man.

In my life, I cry sometimes because of pain; more often for the pain of others but also for my own sorrows. But I also often cry because I'm moved by the goodness of others.

I cried seeing the pain Jesus suffered. I cried seeing Jesus' goodness in bearing it for me and all of fallen humanity. But I also cried in those small moments when good triumphed in the human heart. The film has several such occasions when ordinary people stand against the current for what is good.

Another aspect of the film is the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus. As Protestants, we do not place Mary on a high pedestal as the Catholics do. However, there is no getting around the reality that Scripture says that she along with several other women were there when all the disciples fled. Gibson's film is speculative since Scripture is silent on what Mary did while she was there. However, so much of what we see on the movie screen is Mary doing things you would believe a mother would do. It is not a stretch of the imagination that as she watches, she is praying for Jesus which is something the disciples could not do at the beginning of the film in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Those who are skeptical would say, what is so important about that?

If indeed there is a parallel cosmic battle between good and evil beyond the physical world, then prayer may well be the most important thing that could be done.

And what about simply being there? How often when we were hurting, we thanked a friend for just "being there." It is often wordless, involves listening and a simple touch.

Mary does all of this.

Finally, because of Gibson's Catholicism, the analysis I have found most illuminting was this article in the Catholic publication, First Things. I'll close with an excerpt from that article:
Thankfully, as the scenes become harder and harder to watch, the viewer is offered an example, a guide as to how we are supposed to react to the increasingly disturbing images. This comes in the form of Jesus’ mother, brilliantly played by the Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern. Though Mary is the person most affected by these shattering events, she also understands better than anyone the necessity of what her son must do, and she consents to his mission and her own role in it. She in turn shows the audience what they must do. During the scourging, we see Mary with her head lowered, barely able to support herself as she hears the incessant beating of her son. As we think to ourselves, "no mother should have to witness such a thing," she gathers her strength, lifts her head, and continues to look. If she can, we can. Then, in the harrowing pieta scene at the end of the film, Mary looks directly out at the viewer as she holds the body of Christ, reminding us with her glance that we, too, have been witnessing these events, and that it is now we who are called to bear witness to what we have seen. Like Caravaggio’s Deposition, Gibson’s film places the bulk of responsibility on the viewer.

This emphasis on the role of Mary far outstrips what Pasolini or Zeffirelli was able to imagine. Where Zeffirelli’s Mary, played by the hauntingly lovely Olivia Hussey, elicits compassion, Gibson’s Mary provides comfort. Like the Eve who accompanies Adam in every scene in the Sistine Chapel vault, Mary, it seems, is always present in Gibson’s Passion. Her face is the most reliable clue to the meaning of the unfolding events.
Have a blessed Easter weekend,

UPDATE: Below is an image of Caravaggio’s Deposition from

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