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Friday, March 5, 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 | link | (10) comments

Wednesday, March 3, 2004

A Song and a Prayer

I got an email yesterday from the charming mommy and writer Jordana Adams, who informed me in no uncertain terms that a post on pockets is completely inadequate. So today seems like a good day for one of those posts that contains several seemingly random snippets from life in the Woodlief house, which I masterfully tie together at the end into a bow such that they dovetail nicely, if you will, if I may, to mix two loathsome cliches.

As I write this I'm in a section of the train where three guys have run everyone off with their loud yapping about computer games and the composition of beer. These are grown men, mind you. They never bring anything to read. Instead they sit and talk about how they would operate the Virginia Railway System if they were in charge, and whether the Roto-Rooter model 2000 auger is better than the Evinrude model 350.

But I harbor no malice toward them. What's this, you ask? Have you turned over a new leaf, Tony? Do you have nothing but sweetness and love flowing through your veins now for your fellow man?

No. But I do have an MP3 player, by virtue of the fact that I lived yet another year, which my darling wife chose to reward by giving me a tool to augment my introvertedness. No dummy, she. Enough talk at the dinner table about killing your fellow train riders and you get results, at least in my house.

So right now, while they are debating just exactly how dumb it is to have two rather than three stairways to the train platform, I'm cranking Third Day. Isn't technology a beautiful thing? Today it may just have saved three lives.

It seems like I always have more to write about Caleb than about Eli. I've thought about why this is so, and I think it's primarily because Caleb doesn't shut his cakehole. Talk enough and something interesting is bound to pop out sooner or later, unless you're John Kerry.

Eli, on the other hand, has this habit of getting up close to you, like he's telling you a secret, and then murmuring very softly. "Read book? Read book." That's his method; he asks for something, and then he confirms that you will in fact deliver it. Right now it's cute. When he's six feet tall and 190 pounds of seething muscle, it might lean more towards intimidating.

We'll come back to the little pumpkin whose birthday, by the way, is next Monday, the same as his mother's. First, a little about Caleb.

This weekend I was working at my computer when the boy came stumbling into the room, groggy and messy-headed, fresh from a long snooze. He crawled up into my lap, put his head on my chest, and sat there gathering his thoughts. I knew what he was looking at: a box of Bazooka bubble gum given to me by my wife on Valentine's Day.

Caleb is a chewing gum freak, even more than me. I knew he was working up his case. Finally, he pointed a little finger at the box and declared, "Daddy, God says you have to share that candy."

My son, the televangelist. He called it "candy" because his mind works like a grocery store. Chewing gum belongs on the candy aisle. "Really?" I replied. "Well, I wouldn't want to defy God, now would I?"

"No," he said with the same ominous tone Moses must have used on Mt. Sinai. I gave him a piece and he spent the next minute unwrapping it with fumbling little post-nap fingers. He finally popped the pink rectangle into his mouth. I could feel his jaw working against my chest as he returned his head to its resting place, satisfied.

My wife came in and sat down in a chair beside my desk. She surveyed the scene: me with approximately seventeen pieces of bubble gum in my mouth (I was in the writing zone -- gum helps this), and Caleb working on his own piece. I'm sure we looked like a couple of grazing bulls.

"Daddy, this is good candy. Did mommy get that for you?"

"Yes, she did."

"Mommy, you are the best candier ever."

Little suck up.

Actually, he's not a suck up, he's just polite. A few weeks ago we stood outside his Sunday school class, in a bit of a line created by a recalcitrant child who wasn't quite convinced that her parents were coming back for her after the service. This was probably with good reason -- had I been her parent, I might have considered that option. Don't worry; I'm just kidding, as far as you know.

Behind Caleb stood his little friend William. "I like your coat," said my son.

"Thank you. It's blue." William seized the edge of it and thrust it forward to make his point.

Caleb smiled approvingly. "Splendid."

Now I ask you, isn't that so much better than "cool"? There is such joy to be found in raising literate, well-spoken children. Now, if I could just find the "off" button from time to time.

I don't want you to think my boys are nerds, though. The other night we had a boy's night out -- the three of us set out in the party wagon (actually, it's a Honda minivan) to a suite at the MCI Center (working for a large unnamed corporation has its benefits).

On the way Eli demanded a song performed by Nickel Creek called "The Fox." For he and Caleb, this song is entitled "Bones-o," because that's a word in one of the stanzas. I won't try to describe it; just go buy the first Nickel Creek album. If you don't like their music, I'll thank you to exit civilized society and procreate no more.

Anyhoo, the three of us are cruising down Constitution Avenue, kicking it to "Bones-o," and I look back to see that Caleb is playing air guitar. That's right, air guitar. I don't mean half-hearted strumming, no -- I'm talking full-on, stern-faced, heavy concentration-to-get-the-chords-right air guitar. I tried not to let him see me laughing.

Not that I'm judging him, mind you. My friends and I used to do a pretty pathetic Led Zeppelin imitation in college. I take no pride in that. It might surprise you to learn that no woman ever pounced on any of us after witnessing that wretched spectacle. In many ways air guitar is a very effective form of birth control, right up there with a Kucinich for President bumper sticker.

So I'm hunched over towards the driver's side window, giggling at what I've just seen. The sound of Eli mumbling in harmony because he doesn't know the words, and then randomly shouting out "bones-o! bones-o!" only added to my delight. I turned back to steal another glance and now Caleb had a fake microphone to his lips. He even had the singer's grimace going, like what you might see on "Star Search."

I swear by all that is holy, I have never allowed my child to watch "Star Search." Are these things just hard-wired into little boys, along with farts and stinky feet and an aversion to salad?

But little boys are not all goofiness and odd noises. At least, mine aren't. They're both so tender-hearted that sometimes it just melts me. I'm not so easy to melt. At nights before bedtime I'll kneel down beside Caleb's bed, and he and Eli will join me. I'll ask Caleb what he's thankful for, and I'll get a list that includes close family members, Mickey Mouse, and his favorite toys. I'll ask him who he wants to pray for, and he'll usually say "Eli." That boy needs help, is his point.

Then I'll ask little Eli what he's thankful for, and his answer is always the same: "Um, ABC's." For a child who talks so little, he sure is thankful for his letters. I suppose that's a sign of something good. When I ask who he wants to pray for, he also says, "Um, ABC's."

That's been his consistent answer, until last night, when he said, "Mommy." I can't conjure up a sweeter joy than hearing your child pray for you. I've heard people say that every prayer reaches God's ears, and I'm not always sure that's true. But I think the gentle whispers of children, who don't yet know enough to be so sure of their own wisdom and so doubtful of the mysteries of their Creator -- I think these prayers always find their way to God, and I think they must always make him smile.

posted by Woodlief | link | (14) comments