Friday, February 27, 2004

Reflections on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" 

I think that I, like many people, awaited the premier of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” with mixed emotions. On the one hand, by all accounts of people I respect and trust, it was going to be an incredible cinema-spiritual experience. And yet on the other, especially in light of the controversy it sparked in the national media, I could not help but hold my breath, hoping that the movie would not take a dive off the spiritual deep end to become the two hour festival of pain and human suffering the way so many reviews had classified it.
I was pleasantly surprised. I found the movie to be both engaging and moving on multiple levels. First, the intellectual level—while the movie contains gross historical inaccuracies, it makes them work in the framework of the movie. For instance, when Jesus accepts his cross, he accepts the whole, assembled cross—not just the transept. Aside from the artistic value of what Gibson has described as attempting to recreate the religious and artistic masterpieces of the ages (seldom in art is Jesus depicted as only carrying the transept), this “inaccuracy” has loftier theological implications. Christ accepts his entire fate; he embraces the entire cross. The visual image of a man carrying a massive piece of lumber equates to the reality of the Son of God carrying the sins of the world. This is, by far, not the only historical inaccuracy of the piece—there are many others. And yet each of them fits, nearly seamlessly into the story as both a logical extension of the Gospel story as we know it as well as a miniature theological lesson.
The emotional impact of the piece is jarring. The relationship between the “characters” is built in such a way that they become more than the anonymous, bland personas that we hear about every Sunday from the ambo. We see Mary, the Mother of God, not with a sanguine expression on her face, as though she is passively witnessing all that she knew would come to be; but instead with all of the pain and torture of a mother who wishes with all of her heart to end her child’s suffering. She too, is deeply affected by what she not only sees, but experiences.
While some have disparaged the graphic violence of the film as unnecessary and overly gruesome, it is an important part of the Passion and an essential part of the Gospel message. It underlines the painful truth that lies at the center of Christian dogma; that through suffering comes healing. As Saint Paul said, “by his stripes we are healed.” The graphic and bloody scenes are in stark contrast from the sterile and serene pictures of the crucifixion that have come to us through the ages. It is easy to forget how brutal the last 12 hours of Christ’s life truly were. I was talking to a friend of mine and the only analogy I could come up with was this: it’s like seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time; you know on some level that it’s big, but then you stand at the base and look up and have a fuller understanding of just how big it is. While we will never fully understand the love of God that caused him to sacrifice himself in an incredibly painful way for our redemption, we can better appreciate it in light of the understanding the film brings.
All in all I think it is a movie worth seeing. It may not win an Oscar or the acclaim of the critics, but it has been able to accomplish something that no film in recent memory has been able to do—it has inspired dialogue. People of different faiths; Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews are all talking about the tenants of their faiths and exposing to one another their deepest core beliefs. The engagement and enlightenment that comes from Gibson’s film may not convert the world, but it certainly will open the eyes of many to a world they didn’t know.

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