Thoughts on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

This comes perhaps four years late. But such a tardiness is not without design. I have been quite resistant to viewing The Passion, to some degree from “purist” notions. Not purist in the sense of the silly spats among Orthodox as to whether such a bloody portrayal of the Passion was in keeping with “true” Orthodoxy. Rather purist in the sense of what images I wanted my mind to hold of Jesus’ suffering and death. I wanted such images to be those of the icons and the Church’s hymns. And so, having watched The Passion once after Pascha 2004, I did not watch it again.

I cannot speak as to whether such intentions have been fulfilled, but I do think it accurate to say, I did not as fully appreciate the movie in the early summer of 2004 as I appreciated it this past Friday (when I watched it again for the first time since then), and, unless I am mistaken, as I will further and perhaps more deeply appreciate it in the future. I suspect that such a greater and more understanding engagement with it is due in no small measure to the fact that I have come through more of life in the past four years, including the birth of our second daughter, more Liturgies and worship, more Holy Weeks, and, if I may, more sorrows.

For good measure, the church calls us to remember Christ’s Passion–and here I speak not of the movie specifically, but of the reality which it artistically represents–three times a day in the little hours, and on Wednesdays and Fridays. In the sixth hour, St. Basil invites us to plead the Lord, “Nail our flesh to the fear of Thee.” And in the ninth hour, we pray with the Saint, “O Master, Lord Jesus Christ our God, Thou hast led us to the present hour in which as Thou didst hang upon the life-giving Tree, Thou didst make a way into Paradise for the penitent thief, and by death destroyed death.” And on Wednesdays and Fridays (and during fasting seasons) we deny our bodies that we may not deny our Lord. In these ways, we are continually invited into the sufferings and death of Christ God.

But since many of us need something more, God also calls us into the soul-press of heartache and pain. I wish I knew why this was. That is to say, the reasons the mind gives for such things do not satisfy the heart. There is something that cannot be spoken here. In many ways, I think, I am not sure, it is something that can only be endured. For there is something about this straitening of the soul that draws one into Christ’s Passion. The mystery of the Passion is fathomless, and yet in Christ’s humanity accessible to us in the deepest ways possible for us. We are drawn to it in a myriad of ways, but I think especially when we sorrow and are in pain, physical, spiritual, emotional. We look to the Passion for healing, for answers, for comfort, for peace. But these things do not always come to us immediately. The Passion took place in a matter of hours. Our own forays into his Passion, may take days, and weeks, and years. Indeed, make no mistake, it is the work of a lifetime.

I suppose that there are different points in the movie, The Passion of the Christ, which touch more deeply those raw and bloody spots of our own souls. A friend was discussing how Peter’s bitter weeping at his disavowal of Jesus deeply moved him. I don’t know whether or not to be surprised, but the scene which pierced my own heart was the time when the Theotokos was striving to be near Jesus as he carried his cross. He stumbles and falls. She is a distance away down a passageway perpendicular to his. As he falls she is transported, true Mother that she is, to that moment in Jesus’ childhood where he stumbles and falls upon some steps. She runs after him, in her memory, crying out with heartbreaking tenderness and concern, “Yeshua! Yeshua! Bari, Yeshua!” And now, here her Son has fallen in this cosmic and bloody struggle. He does what a mother’s son does in those moments, he reaches out in love to touch her, and he declares, “See! I am making all things new.”

This, oh, this is what the sorrowing heart yearns for, this new creation, the respite from tears, the putting off of mortal suffering and sin. But we are not yet arrived. We are only part-way to Calvary, and there is more sorrow to undergo. In God’s awful mercy, the final stages of our trek to Golgotha may only unfold over interminable and indefinite temporal horizons. We do not know when our sorrows will come to an end. For some of us, the waves of such sorrows are renewed continually, as new pain and new heartaches confront us, a pounding surf which only knocks us to our knees, and pulls us under the suffocating depths. We fall to our knees, beaten, because he, too, fell to his knees under the weight of the Cross. We, too, will die, because he died. Only then will come the renewal. And, let us confront this head-on: such a renewal may not come for us in this life.

The play of hope in our hearts and minds often feels so cruel. We are creatures made for hope. But perhaps our hopes, too, must die, must be crucified, if we are to live again. This, too, draws us into Christ’s sufferings. The mix of sweat and blood that dims and blinds our vision blocks out hope. The pain makes of us cowards as we dare not hope for fear of yet one more slash, one more stab to kill yet one more hope. So I cannot understand all that draws us into the depths of the Lord’s Passion. But we go there nonetheless, creatures made so to do, and we go to suture our hearts, for it is by his wounds we are healed. The Lord who cried, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” knows our own desolations. He has set our tears before him. Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. He attends to and remembers our sorrows, and all our grief is not lost.

I must mark that somehow in my heart: All our grief is not lost.

A sword pierced the heart of Jesus’ Mother. The Mother of the Man of Sorrows who was acquainted with grief cannot be ignorant of great suffering. And with the Mother of God we too may go to Jesus in his suffering. We may enter into his own wounds, we may touch his own precious blood. And though we yet sorrow, still he may awaken our hearts, “See! I am making all things new.”

I do not know how these seeming opposites are held at once. But there must be a way we may do it.

More to the point, I am not sure how it is we may enter more fully into the Lord’s Passion. There is a mystery here. It is not mere imaginative identification. It is not mere sentimentality. No there is a robust and dangerous reality here that is not to be trifled with. The upraised hand wielding the knife, the downward arc, and the separation of mere seconds and inches in the extinguishing of a life. But there, there is the ram struggling in the thicket. For the Lord, there was no restraining angel, for he himself was the lamb. And how do we enter into that? How do we, in pain, join ourselves to an even greater suffering? How is it that his bloody wounds heal our own?

I do not know. And I cannot tell how it is accomplished. Perhaps that way begins with the Mother of God, and our cry, “Yeshua! Lord, save!”

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

  1. Well, Mel Gibson put to rest the question of Mary’s perpetual virginity in this movie, because the actress who played Mary, Maia Morgenstern, was pregnant during the filming, and you can clearly see her abdominal bulge beneath her robe in some scenes. ;^)

  2. There can be no question that the scourging scenes were a bit too graphic. But that does not dimnish the reality of the brutality that Christ suffered physically. The aspect and personification of evil with the sedative feminacy was nothing short of brilliant. The seducing nature and allurement to sin and go amiss is very real, and we have all felt this certainly. But the poorest part of the movie in my opinion, was Jesus carrying his supposed whole cross. No, he must have only carried the cross-beam. Even this would have been heavy, with no sleep and the torture he suffered during the scourging and handed blows he took. But the effect the movie had on so many people, and even many that were not religious..so-called. This says alot!

  3. I saw the movie in the theater and bought the DVD when it came out. I have watched it each year since, during Holy Week.

    There are those who say that there are many paths to God. That Jesus is “a” way, not “the” way. After watching the movie, my response was, if there were other paths to God, why would Jesus have to suffer so? When Jesus prayed, “let this cup pass from me”, he didn’t hear the Father say, “it’s OK, you don’t have to go through this. I will come up with some other path to me”. No, He had to drink from the cup.

    Whether the movie was 100% accurate or not did not matter to me. It was accurate enough in its portrayal of how Jesus suffered. Seeing the movie and the images of his suffering, confirmed my belief in Jesus as The Way.

    Thank you Jesus!

    I agree, the scene of the flashback of Mary running to and comforting the child Jesus when he fell down is very moving. Brings tears every time I see it.

  4. I own the film and appreciate it…particularly that scene that Clifton notes, bringing home much of the Theotokos’ pain and it connects well with much of the hymnody of the Church. It also reminded me of why singing “The Angel Cried” is so truly joyous.

    My primary complaint is – of course – the heavily westward leaning soteriology and particularly how the devil plays a role in it – or rather how the devil plays a role in trying to thwart it.

    he is desperately trying to keep Jesus FROM the cross and is seen screaming in agony once our Lord dies. It would seem, taking a perspective imaged from Holy Saturday that the death and hell are surprised by their undoing by whom they thought they had killed and caught in their ultimate weapon of mass destruction. In my book, Mel would have a made a better movie if the Resurrection is what drives the devil to futile screaming…not the successful completion of a sacrifice.

    Maybe someday if someone gives me enough money and talent to make a movie I’d do a better job….lol.

    None-the-less…I applaud and fiscally support the effort. Anytime something of worth like this (even if we don’t wholly agree with it) we ought to lend our support.

    Clifton…your post is nothing short of beautiful. Thank you!

  5. James how would you see 1 Cor. 2: 6-8? It is interesting, to me at least, how High Church people (both East & West) cherry-pick so-called tradition and history.

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