Ash Wednesday. At the noon Mass, Fr. Vincent reminded us that awareness of our sinfulness is a Lenten grace. "Let us ask God for it," he said.
As they say, be careful what you pray for.
That night I went to see The Passion of the Christ. It seems like the movie is a kind of Rorschach test, revealing more about what you bring to the experience than what you get from it, stirring up powerful feelings in all who go.
Me included. A secular Jew, I converted to Catholicism in 1995. But I am still a Jew, and I was apprehensive about Gibson's portrait of Caiaphas. After all the media coverage, especially Frank Rich's commentary in The Times, and various interviews with Mel Gibson, I worried that the movie might be seen as justification for anti-Semitism. And perhaps I had reason to worry.
Just yesterday a young man I work with, someone I respect in many ways, someone I'm very fond of, told me, sotto voce, "I know I'm not supposed to say this, but come on—the Jews are always looking out for themselves. In The Passion movie, who were the people yelling 'crucify Him'?"
Of course, they were Jews; that's who lived in Jerusalem. Had we been there, though, as our Good Friday service teaches us, it would have been us yelling.
The movie is not anti-Semitic. As a Jew, I could relate to Caiaphas. Had I been living when he was, I might well have found his position persuasive. Remember, there had been no Resurrection yet. To the Pharisees, who were pious, intellectual Jews, Jesus was a frighteningly charismatic figure whose blasphemy—making Himself equal to God—was dangerous. What if He stirred the people to rebel? The Jews in charge were legitimately worried, not paranoid. The Romans did destroy the Temple and kill thousands when they squashed a Jewish rebellion not so many years later.
To the Pharisees, Jesus was a frighteningly charismatic figure whose blasphemy—making Himself equal to God—was dangerous.
The one Jew so-identified, Simon of Cyrene, is exemplary. He is drafted into service by the crucifying soldiers to help Jesus climb to Golgotha with His cross. At a point long past where modern watchers blanch, Simon bravely stops the soldiers from further torture of Jesus. A soldier spits at him and snarls: "Jew!"
The truly horrible characters in the movie are the Roman soldiers. (Satan is a cartoony horror-movie figure. He's far less scary than the soldiers who scourge and crucify Jesus with such glee.) Like the book of Revelation in the Bible, the movie is profoundly anti-Roman.
And while it is certainly brutal, the violence is less revolting than the gore of Pulp Fiction—just to take a movie whose violence many people didn't even comment on. Watching Jesus suffer, I winced and shrank—but I did not avert my eyes. I watched.
Bloody though it was, I found the movie riveting: beautifully acted, compellingly staged, well paced, and moving. I think the very multi-cultural audience where I saw it, in my neighborhood, agreed. At the end, there was brief applause—and then we left the theater silent, the way we leave church on Good Friday.
And as on Good Friday, the story doesn't leave you when it's over. You find yourself thinking about it again and again. At least I did.
The character least like me is Jesus. While He is totally admirable and winning in the flashbacks, and terribly affecting as a victim, He is clearly Other.
As a mother, I understood Mary when she and Magdalene wipe up Jesus' blood after He is scourged and when she kisses His feet as He hangs on the cross. When she holds Him dead in her lap I was moved to tears. Even more powerful for me was her saying to Him, "I'm here," and there's a flashback to Him falling as a child when she says the same thing.
In the movie’s Pilate, I saw myself luxuriating in my wealth while others went hungry.
But it was Pilate I identified with most. According to history, he was a merciless tyrant, although he is not portrayed that way in the Gospels. Some reviewers have written angrily about the kind treatment he gets in the movie. It reminded me of the family that owned Tom in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe said that in order to show the horror of slavery, she had to put its kindest face on Tom's masters. No matter how well they treated Tom, he was still their slave. In this movie, Pilate represents the official Romans at their best.
And this is how Father Vincent's Ash Wednesday prayer was answered for me: In the movie's Pilate, I saw myself luxuriating in my wealth while others went hungry. I saw myself reflecting on philosophy while those who worked for me whipped Jesus. I saw myself afraid of Caesar, caught between the distant but powerful, threatening government and my own better impulses. There I was, the liberal, anti-war good girl, washing my hands of moral responsibility while soldiers bled and Iraqis burned. My fear, my philosophical reflection, and my self-awareness don't absolve me any more than they did Pilate. My hands aren't clean.
What is truth? By this movie, I was reminded that Jesus commanded us not only to love our neighbors but our enemies. I call myself a Christian, but do I love Osama Bin Laden, who killed my fellow New Yorkers? Do I love Saddam Hussein? Love is an act of will, says M. Scott Peck; do I even try to will myself to love these men?
What is truth? I was reminded that Jesus commanded us not only to love our neighbors but our enemies.
This is truth: Like Pilate, though I see myself as nice, as harmless, as a good girl, I am brimming full of sin.
But this is also truth: Jesus bore my sin for me. I can only pray He makes me worthy of His love.