My reaction to the Passion of Christ movie by Mel’ Gibson, by martina
My first sentence was “it is as it was”, which was originally attributed to the Pope, then denied, but still is a good review. One does not simply see, one experiences it. Also, all the night and waking in the morning, I had the old Negro spiritual singing in my mind,
“were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Whenever I would shudder, the line “sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble” sang through me. I also thought of the great saints, how hard they worked to imagine this sequence of events in total detail, to bring themselves into it, to try to understand it. St. Ignatius gives the spiritual exercises, with the whole 3rd week to place oneself in the walk with Christ through the gospel of the condemnation and scourging and carrying the cross and the crucifixion. In order to feel the repentance and sorrow necessary to really hate one’s own sins, to want to throw away from oneself the qualities which create this suffering, is the whole point of the stations of the cross, and the re-reading of this gospel; the need to recognize the gift of redemption, which is beyond our own ability to give ourselves. Each of us needs to be able to feel we have nailed the nails into his hands, put that crown of thorns into his brow. I remember Austria, the total detail of the monstrous crosses with blood flowing down them, All through the ages, we have been trying to imagine, and take ourselves into, and be repentant for this scene. Now we have such a clear picture, without being saints, without being given a “mystical showing” such as that experienced by Julian of Norwich, or St. Francis of Assisi.
It was interesting too, that on the previews for movies in the next few months, there was one for “Troy”. I think of generations of school boys who have struggled to learn Greek, to read Homer and understand what is going to be seen in this movie, with no effort at all, by boys like my sons. The Greek fleet is a flotilla on a windy sea in the preview—I had never imagined so many boats. Similarly, I now can see Pilate, his silver armor, and his assistant in the hard-ridden thick leather chest armor. I can see the whole Sanhedrin, the kinds of robes they wear, the jewels on their robes, the crosiers they carry. And the path itself through that stony town, and the hillside, which is now covered with buildings. The flashbacks are so beautiful, I deeply yearn to stay in them to get away from the pain and violence, but also to experience Jesus as a boy, as a young carpenter, and to taste the bread and the wine, and look into his eyes when he is laughing and gentle, and not being crucified. The whole movie is theologically grounded and true to the Gospel. I did not feel any anti-Semitism. There are bullies in every age, and men who use power wrongly. I saw Jesus as a sort of toxic waste dump, the hole in the fabric of creation which we can use to send our garbage so that it doesn’t stink up the world. He spins the straw into gold, he turns the hatred to love. He is so present, so full of love; Even on the cross, he calls out to God for forgiveness of the tormentors. I don’t even think the brutality or violence in this film are excessive. That is how it was, It was a brutal and excessively cruel death. Since then, every mother losing a son, every son wrongly tortured and dying too young can take comfort in the redemption Christ offers us through this act of love. No one can say that God doesn’t understand their pain. No one can say that God abandons us in the pit of despair. I think of Elie Wiesel, saying (paraphrase) “anything you say about God, you muxt be able to say over the pit of dead bodies at Auschwitz.” Yes, the cross explains and stands for the Holocaust too. And saints like Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, gave themselves as a holocaust to take on the sufferings of Christ, to make up in their own selves a gift to help redeem the world. One of the things the movie shows is the place in the temple where the curtain is rent. I had imagined this as a narrow and tall place. In the movie, it is more square, and the curtain is not velvety. And the bowls of fire, for light and for the sacrifices, probably, are so dramatic. These are the kind of details the movie makes possible. Also, the blood pouring from Christ’s side when the roman soldier lances it washes him, and he falls to his knees, in adoration, converted from his blood lust. And the wondering face of the solider whose ear is cut off by Peter in the garden of Gethsemane—his face after Christ puts his ear back on and heals him. His inability to “carry on” as if nothing had happened.
I think this movie will be a staple of Christian education, and that there are few details which will be imagined differently in the future. Maybe scholars will come up with a few more things to know, and maybe in 30 years someone will make a movie with even better graphics, but this is as concrete as one can make it, at the present time. It is highly aesthetic, for all the violence. And it just may contribute to Christian unity in new ways, as “the way we see it” coheres us as a community of believers.
When Andy was a small boy, I cried when our church started using the ceremony of the “washing of the feet” with pitchers of water and towels, up on the altar, on Holy Thursday. Andy was one of the first people to run up and be part of it, carefully pouring water over the foot of the person before him, and wiping his foot gently., then waiting for it to be done for himself. I have always loved that ceremony, and think it is one of the most concrete rituals for getting us to treat each other with generosity and respect. But we didn’t start doing it in church till I was over 40. It has been built into my son’s consciousness from such an early age. Now he has this movie, at the age of 15, to help him understand the gift of redemption. It is so needed, that our children have movies, because they are not really used to reading, and their imaginations aren’t inspired by books like my generation was. It remains to be seen whether it will inspire more people to become converted, to accept the need for forgiveness and redemption. I believe it will help to spread the good news of the Gospel. For that, Mel Gibson should be thanked, and I am sure he feels he has done what he was meant to do.
(I wrote this the year the movie came out, and decided to re-post it for Lent)