March 05, 2004
The Passion of Christ
I saw the film nearly a week ago. I've carried the images around in my head, sometimes willingly, sometimes unbidden. Some I savor, and some make me cringe still, and I realize in this the power of the witness, that the eyes are windows to, and therefore into, the soul. Sometimes what they take in etches itself on our hearts for good or ill, as a blessing or a poison.
This film has been called both, of course, and I'll leave it up to the yammering heads to sort out their truths. I've been talking to people about writing these last few weeks, and I've had an epiphany of sorts. I realized that the calling of the writer who is a Christian is the calling of every Christian: to answer Pontius Pilate.
It was Pilate who offered the sophisticated query that we hear echo through our schools and cultural centers, the query of the raised upper lip, the query of one who has made himself a god: "What is truth?"
So there is debate over the truths of this film: does it dress up a lie, does it besmirch Jews, is it the harbinger of religious oppression, and so on. The question hidden in the throats of many doing the asking is this: does it dethrone me as god?
And the answer is no. We are all cast down from our thrones in due time, but no mere film will do that. But it does force us to consider Pilate's question. What is truth? How can we, who are natural liars from our early years, ascertain it?
Biblical scholars talk about the mysteries of the Bible, which I think in many cases is code for the things that don't fit the neat theological constructs into which they've tried to cram their Creator. But he will not fit our constructs, of this I'm sure. See, even the worst of liars like me can recognize Truth. This to me is a mystery, a beautiful, grace-filled mystery.
So I want to share a little of what I saw of Truth in this film. This is a selfish want, one borne of joy and heartbreak. I expected to cry when watching it, but I did not expect that I would weep when I did. It wasn't the torture, or the crucifixion, horrible though they were. I think some Christians obsess over the physical component of what happened that day in the prison and on the Hill of the Skull. They detail the brutality and its effects on Christ's body like coroners, to the point that is borderline pornographic. They speak as if the physical torture was the point.
But it wasn't the point. Instead the torture was man's brutal, ignorant participation in getting to the point, which was innocent blood interposed between wrath and guilt. The film makes clear that the torture was horrible, and obscene, but surely that pain paled in comparison to the moment when Christ looked up to his father and cried out "Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?" only to receive . . . silence. And then the cold clutch of death gripped him. Surely this was the real horror, for who would not endure torture to avoid it?
So what brings tears, to me at least, if not the torture? I didn't expect it, but Mary. The quiet, desperate endurance of a mother witnessing horror descend upon her child -- this I cannot bear to see without weeping. I know why: because I've seen it before, for four months in 1999, in the face of my wife.
I've thought about it from God's perspective, as I've cried out to him over the years: my God, my God, why did you let this happen to her? I'm learning of late that I'm still angry at him. Dreadfully, sickeningly furious. But my anger subsides when I think on the fact that he knows what it is like to watch his child die a wretched death, twisted and tortured. He knows what it is like to see in his child's eyes the weary, woeful realization that in his hands there will be no release from the painful bloody path to death.
But I forgot about Mary. I cast a wary Protestant eye at the prayers to her, the reliance among some Catholics for her intervention, almost as if they believe it was she up on that cross. It wasn't, but surely she felt as if she was. In the film she says to her dying child as she looks up at his almost unrecognizable body, "flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart." Mary didn't die for my sins, but surely on the day my life was bought at Golgotha, Mary died a waking death.
We are not yet at the heart of it, though, because the message is neither the torture nor the death of Christ. In one sense these things comprise his Passion, but there is another sense to that word as we use it in English. I realized this as I witnessed the scene that broke my heart, the scene that I want burned into my mind until the day I am released from this earth.
It was a flashback to a sandy pit. We witness it from the ground, through the eyes of an adulteress as she stares up at her righteous rulers, heartless men with heavy stones in their hands. They are preparing to kill her for her sin, and by law she is guilty and deserving death. Then she sees sandals step between her and these men.
It is her Savior, and mine. He boldly interposed his body between death and that woman and me and millions. This was, and is, his passion. We are his passion; that is the point.
That is Truth. May it set you free.
Posted by Woodlief on March 05, 2004 at 08:50 AM
Thanks Tony - powerful, as always.
Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at March 5, 2004 9:52 AM
Tomorrow will be a week since I saw The Passion of The Christ. It's images are indelibly seared in my mind and heart. It is the most powerful and profoundly moving spirtual experience since my salvation 25 years ago. My salvation experience was a first hand encounter with the overwhelming love of the Father through His Son. What was so powerfully portrayed in this movie was a Love so deep, so passionate, so consuming that we can barely fathom that it was FOR US. A good man my die for a cause, for his friends, for his family; one might perform a heroic fatal act for strangers even, but to willingly out of love allow your child to die for those who don't know you or love you? Enduring what they (we) deserve. And in such horrific fashion. This is the Love we are confronted with. This is the Love that requires a response. This is the Love portrayed that challenges who should be on the throne of our lives.
Thanks for your insight, wisdom and understanding. I hope you will be writing and posting a little more often again! You are missed!
Posted by: Tom K. at March 5, 2004 9:53 AM
Posted by: your good old friend at March 5, 2004 11:19 AM
The only part about the movie that I found annoying (and infuriating) was the scene where Mary hesitates while Jesus is carrying the cross. I couldn't find that in the Bible (but I could be wrong) I think they did her a grave disservice by assuming that she must have hesitated. Perhaps to emphasize the point the Jesus alone died for our sins. But, there's a difference in "Jesus alone died" and "Jesus died alone".
Growing up, I was taught that God turned away from Jesus on the cross because Jesus had taken all our sins upon himself, I suppose suggesting that God was repulsed. The Bible doesn't tell us why God turned away. I wonder if it was because God knew that if he looked, he'd stop it himself. Regardless of why, God looked away. Yet, he's a clever God. He must have known when he chose her that Mary had what it took to stand at the cross, that she had nerve and spirit.
I know its Jesus that we crucified with our sins, but have you thought about the others that suffered? His parents? Before this movie, I knew that Jesus had suffered (admittedly, not how much physically). It had never occured to me that my sin forced Mary to the foot of the cross, watching her son tortured to death. I put her there, in that spot, in heart-rending-pain beyond comprehension. And God. I read over that verse glibly "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son". In the past, I just focused on "wow, God loves us a lot". It never occurred to me how much the crucifixtion of his SON hurt God. If I gave it any thought at all, I assumed that the earthquaked/etc were from an angry God. It didn't occur to me that perhaps it was just a side-effect of God writhing in pain and horror. Generally, I've seen God as all-powerful and strong, not being hurt by anything. Finally, this movie made me realize that he was suffering too.
Sorry this comment got long :)
Posted by: Lucy at March 5, 2004 2:19 PM
I have not yet seen the film, and not out of fear that I might want to burn down a synagogue after seeing it. That whole anti-Semitic argument seems to me to be a smokescreen for a much more sinister political agenda. Your "review" only reinforces the claim that this is a "must-see" film, but not for the reasons that other films are so described. Your comments confirm the power that this film seemingly has of tapping into our deepest human and spiritual natures. Thanks for the posting.
Posted by: jim at March 5, 2004 8:59 PM
Thanks for the wonderful post. It is the first to tap into the feelings I had. It was hard enough to watch Christ suffer, but the physical pain didn't bother me as much as the spiritual. The torture simply detailed how cowardly, wicked, and bloodthirsty us mortals can sometimes be. For Christ, I am sure the spiritual pain of bearing our sins and, subsequently, splitting from the Father were greater. Also, the emotional pain of seeing his followers--including Mary--watch, must have been enormous.
As I sat in the theatre, I wondered at the despair Mary must have suffered. Surely, she knew the prophesies about her son, but an imperfect young woman like my mom or yours, she must have desperately wanted the Father to step in. The most gripping flashback was watching her alternately run to Christ as a child and Christ while carrying the cross. I cannot imagine her pain, and I found myself understanding her despair far more accurately than that of He whom I will never fully understand. Thank you for your thoughfulness.
Posted by: John at March 6, 2004 2:23 PM
Gosh you guys! Such gnashing of teeth, shedding of tears over a movie made about the supernatural! You all write so well; otherwise bright folks. Tony, how is it possible that you earned a PhD and still believe in this pap? Or perhaps you're just practicing Pascal's wager?
Posted by: Skeptic at March 7, 2004 1:13 PM
"Professing to be wise they became fools..."
Posted by: Tony at March 7, 2004 3:43 PM
...and, yet, someone like Skeptic won't stop to think for a second that someone like Tony chooses that way because he "is" intelligent.
Posted by: jess pasenthru at March 7, 2004 6:20 PM
Well I felt somthing was amiss when I saw the horrific brutality depicted by Mr Gibson ,a person known for cinematic hyperbole;so I rushed home to see what the bible had to say.In Mark 15:15 (Pilate )had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified.Continuing to Mark 16: The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace(the preatorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers.Well I distinctly remember the movie depicted the soldiers dragging Jesus which seemed appropriate considering the beating he had been subjected to.I also couldnt find any reference in the bible to support the movies depiction of Pilate telling the guards to beat Him " severely but dont kill him."The bible says he(Pilate )had Him flogged.If the Bible says He was led away and the movie depicts dragging this must represent a discrepancy ; the one we know IS the truth ;it is the word of God;the other is somthing other than the truth;a depiction of the script writer.This must give rise to a doubt about the severity of the beating as depicted in the film and whether it wasnt overdone for affect . Subsequently Jesus is carrying the cross after being beaten till he cannot stand.He then relinquishes the task to a Cyrene, Simon,father of Alexander and Rufus,a robust country man who has a heck of a time carrying it .Pilot contemplates" truth" in the movie which is ironic since the movie shows what can happen when effect replaces truth.
Posted by: sam at April 17, 2004 10:17 AM