Thursday, February 26, 2004

The Passion of the Christ: A Review

The Passion of the Christ is bloody. The blood of Christ is everywhere. Roman soldiers wipe it from their brows after scourging Jesus. Puddles of the stuff cover the ground. It pours out as the nails are driven into Jesus’ hands and feet. After a soldier pierces the side of Jesus, blood and water rain down upon those at the foot of the cross. At one point, I even remember the blood splattering the camera lens as it records the gruesome events. As I watched the movie, I began to wonder how much blood can a single body have.

In another time and another place, a parishioner complained to me about the choice of a hymn for worship. We sang, “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins.” This parishioner thought the concept was barbaric. He was disturbed by the images of washing in a fountain of blood. I thought more about that complaint when I read some of the recent reviews of "The Passion." Although many saw the film as edifying and uplifting, others saw the movie as revolting. For example, the New York Times reviewer, A.O. Scott, wrote, “Mr. Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one.” Why the difference? How one views the suffering of Christ provides a key.

In this movie, Mel Gibson understands the suffering of Christ to be redemptive. This has been the teaching of Scripture and the Church since the beginning. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us, “That we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph 1:7). Atonement through the shedding of blood has its roots in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and further developed in the New Testament book of Hebrews. The doctrine has its most complete exposition in the 11th Century in St. Anselm’s book, "Cur Deus Homo" ("Why God became Man"). Simplified, the argument runs thus: Between the holiness of God and my sin, there exists an immeasurable debt. Justice demands that humanity pay the price, but only God himself can afford the cost. Thus, Jesus, fully human and fully divine, acts as our substitute, paying our debt in his blood.

Those who principally accept that “Jesus died for my sins” will probably find The Passion moving and inspiring. The movie graphically shows the depth of Christ’s love. We watch accepting some of the blame for the suffering of our Savior, yet we are moved that he endured the gory bloodbath for our sake. In the movie, Simon of Cyrene, helping carry the cross to Golgotha, encourages Jesus saying, “We’re almost there. Not much farther now.” The viewer is reminded that Jesus must go on, otherwise his mission would remain incomplete. Perhaps like Mel Gibson’s action movies, the hero, bruised and broken, will not be stopped until the battle is won.

I accept that the suffering of Christ is redemptive, yet viewing the film, I could sympathize with my angry parishioner. After watching the scourging, the beating, the crown of thorns, and the crucifixion, I was exhausted. When Jesus tells the criminal crucified with him, “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” I really wasn’t convinced. The suffering was displayed well, but the victory was missing or anti-climatic. In one scene, Jesus tells Mary after stumbling with the cross, “Behold I am making all things new.” That line comes from the book of Revelation (21:5). In its context, the words come from the risen, glorified Jesus. When the bloody mass of flesh with the swollen eye spoke those words, I wondered if Gibson thought the resurrection incidental to the story. I also found Satan’s cry of defeat so fleeting and undeveloped that it remained forgettable. Finally, I was bothered by Gibson’s depiction of the resurrection. The whole thing took at most three minutes of the movie. It appeared almost as an afterthought.

This is a movie about the Passion of the Christ. It is a cinematic Stations of the Cross where we follow Jesus every step of the way. To believers and the sympathetic, I recommend the film. It has the potential to arouse and to inspire. However, if you are looking for Easter--for the resurrection--go to church.

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