By the time you read this, you may think you've
heard enough about Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ.
It has stirred up quite a dust storm of controversy. Before the
film opened on Ash Wednesday, I had read pages of heartfelt comments
from people who had attended pre-screenings of the film. Many spoke
of the stunned silence at the end of the film and of how many viewers
left the theater in tears. I was looking forward to seeing the film
and feeling the same spiritual impact in my own heart.
When I had a chance to see the film a week or
so after the opening, I had very mixed feelings. During the opening
scenes in the Garden of Gethsemane, I was very much into what was
happening and felt the heart-pounding terror and anguish that Jesus
himself must have felt. The cinematography was powerful. It seemed
to promise a profound spiritual experience.
But once the scourging startedand
seemed never to stopI knew I was in the camp of those who
saw the film's violence and bloodletting as over the top. The excess
ended up repelling me and desensitizing me to the film's intended
and profound message, projected on the screen before the story began:
"But he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our
iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and
by his wounds we are healed." Although the violence muted the
film's impact on me, I know that for many the full effect of those
words was not lost and they were deeply moved by the movie.
Over the centuries, devout artists have depicted
Jesus' passion in a wide range of waysall
the way from showing Jesus' body in extreme agony and oozing blood
in abundance to presenting him in serene acceptance with minimal
signs of anguish or blood. One of the most popular images for Franciscans
is the San Damiano Crucifix, which presents a peaceful Jesus offering
his saving blood to the world from an almost luminous body that
seems already on the way to Resurrection. Yet the Franciscan movement
is also responsible for the popular Catholic devotion of the Way
of the Cross and the practice of meditating lovingly on the concrete
details of Christ's mental and physical suffering.
Artists, very appropriately, have leeway in how
they choose to convey the central message of God's unconditional
love for us, as expressed by John 15:13: "No one has greater
love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."
Because of his own unique journey and theological perspective, Mel
Gibson has chosen to present a brutalizing blow-by-blow account
of Jesus' suffering that is more "in your face" than any
account of the four evangelists. By comparison, the words of the
evangelists come across as understated. Yet they present the drama
of the passion and of God's great love very powerfully.
I admire the courage and faith of Mel Gibson.
I believe his making of The Passion of the Christ for worldwide
distribution was a great act of devotion, heroic witness and love.
The film is drawing Christians and non-Christians alike, by the
millions, to experience the greatest drama ever toldand the
core of the Good News: that God wants all humanity to be healed
and "made new" in the blood of the lamb.
The film has also given rise to what might be
the most widely aired debate ever concerning the Gospel accounts
of Jesus' death and anti-Semitismand
the teachings of the Church regarding the subject. It's a very sensitive
debate that touches the deepest feelings of many and cannot be easily
resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Yet, fortunately, a lot of
education and discernment has been going on in heated newspaper
columns and talk-show discussions. It has been a "teaching
moment," as they say. And Mel Gibson even made a change or
two in the film for the sake of interfaith feelings.
Although I am confident that Mr. Gibson had no
intention of making an anti-Semitic film, I personally believe the
film could have been more attentive to Jewish sensitivities in light
of the availability of solid interfaith literature and guidelines
for avoiding anti-Semitism in dramatic renditions of the passion.
This is a pertinent question in discussions about
Jesus' passion and death. In the same chapter of Isaiah quoted at
the film's beginning, we find statements like: "The Lord laid
upon him the guilt of us all" (53:6) and "It was the will
of the Lord to crush him with pain" (53:10). One must be careful
in understanding such lines. Could the good God that you and I know
really "will," at least in any direct way, such a horrible
death for his son? Such a notion seems contradictory to the nature
of God as revealed in the Scriptures as a whole. It seems contradictory,
for example, to picture God as personally staging the torture of
Christ in order to satisfy divine anger over the sins of humanity.
I don't think it is fair to God to picture our all-loving Creator
in this way, and responsible theologians don't take such approaches
today. (I am not, by the way, suggesting that Gibson's film falls
into that kind of interpretation.)
How then are we to look on God's will in this
regard? I would like to answer this question by quoting something
I have already written on the topic of suffering. In the essay "Why
Must I Suffer?" I pose the same question and try my best
to give a satisfying answer:
"What then should we say God willed regarding
Jesus' death? Why not that God willed Jesus to be a whole, honest,
loving human beinga model for
humanitya person who would serve
others totally, especially those in need....The price, however,
of being a completely just and loving person in an unjust and imperfect
world and of confronting the world's sin could well be suffering
and death. And so it was for Jesus. God did not want Jesus to die
on the cross at all costs so much as to want him to be an exemplary
human being at all costswhich
predictably mean death on a cross. In this sense, of course, God
was willing to give up his Son.
"When we look closely, however, Scripture
does not portray God as the one who actually willed or inflicted
suffering and death on Jesus. In fact, it was precisely the anti-God
forcesthe enemies of God [on
all sides]who caused Jesus to
suffer. Jesus' Crucifixion was not orchestrated by God's will but
by human beings who were acting in direct opposition to God's will."
With Holy Week approaching, there is no better
way to understand God's loving will toward us than by understanding
Christ's will for us: That we become whole through the gift of the
total love that God offers usand
as revealed most dramatically in the suffering, death and resurrection
of Jesus. Isaiah says it well: "By his wounds we are healed."
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