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March 27, 2008
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THE UNBEARABLE REALITY OF LOVE: THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

In this film we see with unbearable clarity how Jesus descended into the personal Hell each of us carries around - and purged it clean.

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The movie's end was stark and uncompromising. After Jesus breathed His last upon the cross, thunder and lightning split the sky as if the earth were enraged by Abel's blood. An earthquake shook the hill of Golgotha, scattering the haughty Roman soldiers like a pack of cowards; it upended furniture in the palace of Pontius Pilate, reminding the bureaucrat of blood he could never wash away; it split the altar of the Temple in two, leaving Caiaphas and his fellow Sadducees terrified,  their smugness shattered; and it drove Satan in the depths of Hell to despair, to look up from the white volcanic cone where he paced alone, and scream. Then, deep inside the tomb where Jesus' nearly skinned cadaver lay, a ray of light appeared. The dead man awoke, healed of stripes and scars, and started for a moment into the light. Then the screen went black. The torture of Christ had gone on for most of two hours. The resurrection lasted five seconds. If you turned your head you missed it. As I left, I couldn't suppress the thought, "Such a bloody religion. I wish I were a Buddhist..."

The soul-crushing cruelty of the Roman guards dominates the action.
We walked out of the Evangelical church which screened The Passion of the Christ in a solemn silence; priests and monsignors, monks and nuns, pastors and their  wives. No chatter, no buzz, no "word of mouth." We were all too stunned. It was almost as if we'd seen a Filipino Passion Play, during which a pious volunteer is actually crucified. (Relax, he isn't killed.) I was numb long before the movie's end—in fact, I'd "checked out" during the flogging sequences. The initial torture ordered by Pilate was depicted in real time—all forty lashes—and imposed by sadistic Roman soldiers who "got off" as Jesus' blood sprayed their faces. This flaying reduced His body and face to an unrecognizable ruin of gore. My sensibilities overloaded—as they had during "Saving Private Ryan"—and I felt myself switch off, shut down, withdraw.

I left the present tense of the story, and started to notice the many artsy touches throughout this beautifully rendered film: the visual references to landscapes and paintings of Christ by Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Rouault—but most of all to Hieronymous Bosch. The better part of the film could pass for an animation of Bosch's grotesque landscapes and Passion pictures. The Middle Eastern music reminded me of the profound melancholy of Maronite liturgical chant, and ancient Melkite hymns. The uniformly exquisite acting brought to life the figures of Mary, St. John, the Magdalene and Judas Iscariot more vividly than I'd seen in any New Testament film.

But the grim, unrelenting violence continued—and by this time it was pretty much wasted on me; it had no more impact. To quote This is Spinal Tap, the amplifier had already "gone to 11." I yearned for more of the flashbacks depicting Jesus' sermons and benedictions. There were some, interspersed throughout, but not enough to remind us who this man was or why we should force ourselves towatch His slow destruction. I looked in vain for the scenes of scandal, where Jesus denounced the merciless Pharisees and trashed the moneychangers' booths, or flung the gauntlet of His divinity in the face of the audience—which would have explained the implacable hatred He stirred in Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. If you knew nothing else of Jesus' story than the film conveyed, you would be puzzled as to why so many angry bearded men were stirred up to crucify this gentle soul.

We walked out in a solemn silence; No chatter, no buzz, no “word of mouth”. We were all too stunned.
It is here that the charge of anti-Semitism finds a niche into which it can slither and hide. Some defensive Jewish viewers have suggested that Gibson left the Sadducees' motives unexplained because he attributes bloodlust and hatefulness to Jews as a race or a religion. There is nothing in the film, or Gibson's expressed beliefs, to suggest such a thing; however reluctant Pilate seems to crucify Jesus, however eager are Caiaphas and his knot of supporters, the soul-crushing cruelty of the Roman guards who are torturing for fun, not out of any religious conviction, dominates the action. Their brutality leaves the crowd of Jewish onlookers (many of whom weep as Jesus carries his cross) in the blood-soaked dust.

The movie is utterly orthodox in attributing Jesus' death to the sins of all men—a point made in its very first sequence, a brilliant exchange between Jesus on Gethsemane and a skulking, beautiful Satan. Indeed, the overpowering sense of personal responsibility for Jesus' death which this film conveys makes you wish you could find a scapegoat, someone on whom to blame this torture other than yourself. You might find yourself wishing that the film presented "perfidious Jews," or tyrannous Romans, or a monstrous Judas figure, as an escape valve for your guilt. But that would defeat its purpose entirely, and Gibson is too much of an artist, and too solidly faithful, to allow it.

The film's exclusive emphasis on Jesus' final meekness, going as a "lamb to the slaughter," did disappoint me. I found myself wishing the movie had included more of the things that Jesus said throughout the New Testament which rankled His listeners—and to be candid, rankle me, making me always reluctant to read the central document of my own religion. (Yes, I'm one of those Catholics whom Evangelicals rightly mock because we don't enjoy reading the Bible.)

The prophetic utterances, "So the last will be first, and the first last," the outrageous demands, "Sell all you have and give it to the poor," the bizarre advice, "Turn the other cheek," and finally the many statements which seem humanly haughty and obnoxious such as, "He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me." Whenever I read these passages, I must confess, my reaction is annoyance, even anger. I find myself thinking: "This guy had better be God. Or else he's a self-aggrandizing nutcase."

While I do believe in His divinity—and have consequently spent the past 25 years as a pro-life activist and Catholic apologist—this doesn't quite neutralize the queasy feeling in my gut. On a primal level, I can understand all too well the crowds who turned on Christ—a point driven home by the Palm Sunday liturgy, in which the congregation plays their part, shouting "Give us Barabbas!" For this reason, I've never been able to manage the spiritual feat encouraged by theologians such as Robert Hugh Benson, who urges us in his profound book of that name to cultivate The Friendship of Christ. Through grace, it's possible to love Jesus. (In fact, one's eternal destiny depends on it.) But He's sometimes a hard guy to like. For film-goers to truly appreciate their personal implication in the death of Christ, I think it would be valuable to present those aspects of His message and person which really would tempt them, like the Jerusalem mob, to turn on Him. 
 
It is not guilt, but forgiveness, which will pour from the cross and descend through the ages.
What turns us back to Christ? The film is rich with suggestions, with moving moments that demonstrate how Jesus is indeed the face of a loving God turned towards man. Gibson leaves out any flashbacks to Jesus' miracles—the very proofs of His divine authority, as He frequently asserted. No loaves and fishes multiply, no Lazarus rises, no blind men see. Instead, the wonders the film presents are more impressive—they amaze us with Jesus' power and willingness to forgive. We see Him rescue Mary Magdalene from a crowd of righteous Pharisees—who all too eagerly seek to enforce Mosaic law by stoning her. Wracked with torture which we share, crushed by mockery, and tempted to despair—He turns to Dismas, the penitent thief, and promises him, "This day you will be with me in my kingdom." And most astonishingly, He turns to the gloating Caiaphas, who taunts Him from the foot of the cross (with Satan lurking behind him, supportively), and looks directly at him as He delivers his final absolution: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." This phrase utterly negates Caiaphas' hasty, callous curse, "Let his blood be upon us, and upon our children." (This controversial biblical statement reportedly made the final cut, but was not subtitled). Jesus refutes him, with divine authority; it is not guilt, but forgiveness, which will pour from the cross and descend through the ages.

It is here that Jesus sets Himself apart from Jewish prophets whom He resembled, from mythological gods who died like Dionysius only to rise with the grapes each season, from warrior kings who fought for justice. As the eminent French critic Renè Girard observes in his works on the figure of "the scapegoat" through millennia of human history, Jesus undercuts and in fact inverts the plans of those who would destroy Him, who consider it expedient "that one man should die for the sake of a nation." Had Jesus died with a curse on His lips, with imprecations against the Pharisees and His faithless followers, his sacrifice would have been meaningless—a political martyrdom, which ended in futility. (Too many false Messiahs died in this very way; the Jews who followed one of them and rebelled against the Romans circa A.D. 70 would kill themselves, down to the last woman and child, in the senseless self-slaughter that followed Masada.) The stories of Jesus' resurrection would likely not have been believed, since He would have proven himself to be just another man.

The most wondrous miracle Jesus performed throughout His life—which converts one of the Romans who crucified Him, on the spot—was His forgiveness, freely bestowed, in the midst of hideous suffering, on His tormentors. Such courage and generosity are literally superhuman—yet they answer to man's deepest need, to the darkest squalid corner in each of our hearts which we "know" is irredeemable, which we yearn to bring out into air and light, and heal. In this film we see with unbearable clarity how Jesus descended into the personal Hell each of us carries around, and purged it clean.

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February 25, 2004

John Zmirak wrote the first English-language biography of anti-Nazi activist and social philosopher Wilhelm Röpke (ISI Books, 2001). He writes frequently for The American Conservative, VDare.com, and other publications, and is a Godspy Contributing Editor.

Photo credit: Philippe Antonello. Copyright 2003, Icon Distribution Inc., All Rights Reserved. A Newmarket Films Release.

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READER COMMENTS
03.20.04   Mark W. Barton says:
It amazes me that the body of Christ has been able to function without this movie as a tool in days past. Why is it that so many defend the flawed movie instead of the perfect scripture it offends?? It presents a distorted Gospel and a weak Jesus but we should dismiss the flaws because the intent was honorable?? Mel has stated that it is a Marian movie. Mel has also said that his wife will probably go to hell because she is not Catholic. If the main character and the man who brought this movie to us have these views, is there anyway that the movie will not present more of the same?? This generation must not continue to compromise it's faith based on a movie's good intentions. We must not defend a flawed movie, we should be defending the perfect scripture it is said to represent. Mel has stated his position clearly, he is amazed that evangelicals have embraced a Marian movie. Jim Caviezel has stated that Mary made this movie for her son. Jim also stated that he carried a piece of the cross and other such Catholic icons on his person during the filming of the movie and that is cultic behavior.

03.18.04   mark cullom says:
i have never had a movie touch me like this one did,as far as the contiversery around it,one of the first things you see in the movie was santan,so he was in the middle of the first contriversy,why would it so hard to belive hes in the middle of this one as well,as satan sees,the spark as well.

03.11.04   jmcfadden says:
Thank you for your insight on the raven. I have to ask: have you seen the movie more than once? I tip my cap to your powers of observation!

03.08.04   PHeeRNoT says:
But what about the ugly baby?"Again," said Gibson, "it's evil distorting what's good. What is more tender and beautiful than a mother and a child? So the Devil takes that and distorts it just a little bit. Instead of a normal mother and child you have an androgynous figure holding a 40-year-old 'baby' with hair on his back. It is weird, it is shocking, it's almost too much—just like turning Jesus over to continue scourging him on his chest is shocking and almost too much, which is the exact moment when this appearance of the Devil and the baby takes place."

03.02.04   hijodavis says:
I would like to know the purpose of the baby satan was carrying. I would like to know what Mel idea waa on this. Josie

03.02.04   Romulus says:
The scavenging raven that gobbles up the eyes of the bad thief is Satan, whose aim is to consume all of us ("as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour") He starts with the eyes to signify the bad thief's moral and spiritual blindness. If you look carefully in the shot immediately following the crow, you'll see a long shot of Golgotha, with a black figure (Satan) on a ledge in the lower right hand corner.I interpret Satan's baby in the scourging scene as the anti-Christ; his hairy body emphasises his "beastly" nature.

03.02.04   jmcfadden says:
Lori, Thank you for your response. Apparently, theDolorous Passionwas a source for several things in the movie. I think your response and Mr. Kinsman's insight are both completely valid. canticle,Thanks for sharing the verse. I have never heard it before. When I talk to Mel, I'll ask him about that.

03.02.04   jmcfadden says:
Thanks very much for your response. Your insight is well taken. As you put it, Mary's action would be the natural response of a mother who has had to endure the suffering of her child.

03.01.04   canticle says:
About the tear falling, there is a lovely and mournful verse:When Jesus wept, a falling tear in mercy flowed beyond all bounds;When Jesus groaned a trembling fear seized all the guilty world around.I heard this years ago and have always sung it as a lullaby to my children. Lo and behold, the children's choir sang it in rounds at the offeratory yesterday at Mass.

03.01.04   Lori says:
Hi.Regarding the blood, again I must refer to the "Dolorous Passion of Jesus Christ" by Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich--which Gibson used as a source for the movie. In Emmerich's visions she sees the Blessed Virgin wipe up the blood after Cassius thrust his lance into the side of Jesus. " Mary, John, the holy women, and Cassius, gathered up the blood and water in flasks, and wiped up the remainder with pieces of linen." According to the book, Pilate's wife gave the Blessed Mother the linen. Whether you believe Emmerich's visions or not, the the book is very interesting and it might lend some clarity to the movie.

03.01.04   Jonathan Kinsman says:
Mr McFadden:I believe prior comments on the "Blood Mopping" incident are misplaced. This is not a Catholic 'pious tradition' but the Director's way of showing the pain and suffering of the mother for her Son. Mary is not allowed near the scourged Jesus (as all are restrained by the Roman soldiers), so, when the scourging is finished, her way of working through her (to her mind) inability to care for her hurting Son is to clean up after Him, to be near to providing comfort to her Son as she is able. It is not in our tradition nor is it indicative of the Precious Blood movement (a Dominican generated devotion) in the Church. Think of those roadside crosses with photographs, cards, bears and balloons for parents' sons and daughters, it is a human trait to connect even unto death with loved ones. In many Catholic cultures, photographs of the deceased in the open coffin are taken and mounted during subsequent mourning visits.

03.01.04   jmcfadden says:
Thanks very much for your responses! I've talked to a number of poeple who have seen the movie, and there seems to be general consensus about the blood and the "baby" even though no one has come up wth separate or independent sources for the depictions.My wife had an interesting thought on something that I completely missed: the raindrop that fell from the sky as a symbolic tear of God. It made sense when I thought about it since it came after Christ had died and it began the storm and earthquake.One other thought: the background for Christ crushing the head of the snake in the Garden is Genesis 3:15. Christ's statement to Mary that "I make all things new" is Reveleation 21:5. I think it adds to the impact of the movie to know that Gibson showed God working His salvation from the beginning to the end of Scripture.

02.29.04   MSR says:
Let me take a swing at your questions:1. I think the blood- soaking up scene derives more from traditional (Orthodox) Jewish belief in the sacredness of blood, the seat of life. This practice continues today in the aftermath of the suicide bombings in Israel. There is a special rabbinic squad the "cleanses" the grisly scene of body parts and blood. This reverent, biblical treatment of any human blood lends itself easily to a developement into the current Catholic devotion to the Precious Blood of Christ. Check it out.2. I can't add to the previous responses on Veronica.3. Nothing Catholic here in the dandled baby scene, but it should likely be interpreted as Satan aping the Nativity of Christ. This is his MO after all- to appear as an angel of light or a false Christ that will confuse even the elect.4. No Catholic position on the scavenging birds either. This was probably Gibson adapting biblical descriptions of derelict corpses (1 Kgs 21, 24; Jer 12, 9)

02.27.04   jmcfadden says:
Thank you very much for your responses to my questions. I guess I'm going to have to ask Mel about the baby that Satan was carrying during the scourging.

02.25.04   Lori says:
Regarding Veronica, if you put any stock in the visions of Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich — whose writing Gibson used as a source for the film—you’ll believe that Veronica is more than just a pious legend. According to Emmerich, Veronica was first known as Seraphia, but her name was later changed to Veronica, meaning ‘true portrait’ after Christ’s image appeared on the cloth that she gave Him. “But when the procession had advanced about two hundred steps from the spot where Simon began to assist our Lord in carrying his cross, the door of a beautiful house on the left opened, and a woman of majestic appearance, holding a young girl by the hand, came out, and walked up to the very head of the procession. Seraphia was the name of the brave woman who thus dared to confront the enraged multitude; she was the wife of Sirach, one of the councillors belonging to the Temple, and was afterwards known by the name of Veronica, which name was given from the words vera icon (true portrait), to commemorate her brave conduct on this day.” Veronica and John the Baptist were cousins; she was present at the marriage of the Blessed Virgin and later she sent food to Jesus when he first began his teaching in the Temple, according to Emmerich’s visionary accounts written in “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Another point to consider is that Veronica appears in one of the Stations of The Cross, a Catholic meditation on Christ’s Passion.

02.25.04   nhaggin says:
In answer to jmcfadden's questions:1. I can't be sure without asking Gibson himself, but I would presume you are correct; it is, after all, the blood of God made man. Probably also a reference to the Eucharist.2. According to tradition, a woman named Veronica wiped Jesus' face on the road to the Cross, and he rewarded her love by placing an image of his face on the cloth. The roots of this story are most likely in a miraculous icon of the face of Christ, called "Made Without Hands"; the name Veronica is derived from a Greek phrase meaning "true image." (Latin-speakers got confused when the Greeks told them about the icon, or so I conjecture.)3. Possibly another pious legend; there is nothing in the teachings of the Church about this.4. There is also nothing in the teachings of the Church about this; again, probably a pious legend.

02.25.04   lindadic says:
This is the first review that makes me feel less ambivalent about seeing the movie. Before, I felt it was my responsibility as a sinner; now I want to as a Christian. I am going tonight. Thank you!

02.25.04   jmcfadden says:
I am a Baptist who saw "The Passion of the Christ" last night, and I have some questions about some things depicted in the movie. The reason I am posting my questions here is that I think these issues may be Catholic doctrines or traditions with which I am unfamiliar. (Please excuse my phrasing or word use if I say something incorrectly. I am asking these questions because I am curious.) 1) Is Mary and Mary Magdalene's attempt to soak up the blood of Christ after the scourging an expression of the belief in the power inherent in Jesus' blood? 2) As Jesus carried the cross to Golgotha, a young woman approached him and wiped his face with a cloth. As Jesus continued toward the Crucifixion, you could see a likeness of his face on the cloth as she held it. Is this cloth significant?3) As Jesus was being scourged, Satan is seen carrying a demonic looking baby. Is that scene something from Catholic teaching?4) As Jesus and the thieves hung on the crosses, a bird flew down and pecked at the eyes of the thief who mocked Jesus. Is this scene a Catholic teaching?Thank you for any help you can offer!

02.24.04   Godspy says:
In this film we see with unbearable clarity how Jesus descended into the personal Hell each of us carries around - and purged it clean.

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