Who’s seen the movie The Passion of Christ? (Perhaps I should have asked ‘How many have not seen it?’).
Let’s offer some one-word or single-phrase responses: how did you feel while watching it, and afterwards?
Violent? Yes, it’s 126 minutes long, and at least 100 of those minutes graphically portray the torture and death of Jesus. It’s the most violent movie many of us have seen: some of my friends cried non-stop; I read of some walking out. ‘It’s too violent’ say some critics: ‘The relentless gore is self-defeating’, wrote one. ‘I felt abused by a film-maker intent on punishing us.’ ‘Do we need a close-up of an eye being pecked out?’ ‘It’s not restrained, like the Gospel stories’, said a bishop. But in those horrific times you didn’t need to describe floggings and crucifixions: everyone witnessed them. Pilate crucified thousands of Jews at the slightest hint of revolt. In our day we have become desensitized to violence by movies like Pulp Fiction, Fight Club and The Gladiator. Gibson was right to make graphic violence part of his dramatic tool kit.
Catholic? Yes, Mel Gibson is a Catholic traditionalist; the story-line is inspired by the 14 Stations of the Cross; the title is from the Latin word for suffering and pain; the God-vs-Satan cosmic drama is all there (and, interestingly, Satan is portrayed as female). But this may be the first time most Catholic and Protestant clergy agree (80% according to one survey) that it’s generally true to the message of the Gospels and recommend we all see it.
Realistic? Yes. The most realistic of all the Jesus films (certainly more than King of Kings where Jeffrey Hunter, starring as Christ, had to shave his armpits because preview audiences complained about his hairiness). Critics are saying it’s the best cinematic representation of the Jesus story in 50 years.
Jesus alienated the Establishment? Yes. Jesus’ revolutionary message was threatening to the Roman occupiers; and his messianic claims threatened the status quo established by Jewish rulers. Pilate and Caiaphas were both reluctant to see Jesus crucified; but they believed – for different reasons – that a man like Jesus was dangerous.
Anti-semitic? Not really. In the film there’s a range of behaviors by Jewish people. Anarchic mob rage can happen anywhere. The Jewish priests want Jesus dead. But religious leaders can be like that – Catholic bishops move pedophile priests to another parish where more children can be abused; Protestant TV preachers confuse religion with politics; some Muslim clerics are silent on terrorism. The two key anti-Semitic sayings in the Gospels – ‘His blood be on and on our children’ (Matthew 27:25) and ‘It is better that one man die, than to have the whole nation destroyed’ (John 11:50, 18:14) – were both omitted from the film. Ordinary Jews are often viewed positively: Simon helps Jesus to carry the cross, Veronica brings a cloth to wipe his face, Jews in the crowd cry out against his torture.
It’s got people talking about Jesus? It certainly has – and other important matters like human cruelty and redemptive suffering. People in Middle Eastern countries are asking Christians for Bibles. Rick Warren says the movie brought 2,500 extra people to his Saddle back Community Church.
Who killed Jesus? In the ancient Gospel stories there are many characters with many motives -as there are today. We sinners all killed him. (Catholics on Good Friday during the ‘long gospel’ cry out ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ They tell me it’s the worst moment in their liturgical year). And it’s happening still: Jesus who is a hungry child in a poor country dies more slowly because the rich won’t share their resources.
God ordained Jesus’ suffering and death? Here we’re getting close to the key to it all. As I watched, the words of an old Sunday School song went through my mind: All the way to Calvary he went for me, he went for me, he went for me. All the way to Calvary he went for me. He died to set me free.
The movie fails, however, to answer the question: ‘How has this bloodied man changed history?’ Jesus the Son of God is crucified on a cross between two criminals. And they call that Good Friday.
You cannot really understand the passion of Jesus unless you have some idea of what Jesus was passionate about.
I remember my English professor saying that great literature addresses one or more of three great existential questions: What do I do with my guilt? Where can I find true love? How shall I face death?
Time Magazine‘s cover story this week is titled Why Did Jesus Have to Die? It’s a brilliant summary of Christian thinking on the subject, which has always said the death of Jesus the Christ addresses those three big questions.
(1) When Jesus died he was demonstrating that the God who was his Father entered our life and loved us even to the point of death. The death of Jesus, says Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison is the ultimate symbol of the suffering of God in the life of the world. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to a cross. Only a powerless and suffering God can really help us… God did not come to save us by an act of terror so that we would be cowed into belief, but by a great act of love. Abelard, a twelfth century philosopher and theologian, believed the cross primarily demonstrates the greatness of the love of God, a love that should move us away from our sin and to love God in return. God so loved, that he gave (John 3:16). The Son of God, says Paul, loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20). Our response? Obedient love – even if we suffer too (1 Peter 2:21).
Mel Gibson says of his movie ‘My aim is to profoundly change people. The audience has to experience the harsh reality to understand it. I want to reach people with a message of faith, hope, love and forgiveness. Christ forgave them even as He was tortured and killed. That’s the ultimate example of love.’
(2) There’s another theme running through the Bible which is somewhat foreign to Westerners, that of animal sacrifices for human sins. John the Baptist recognized Jesus as ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29,36). Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers describe how animals can ‘bear the sins’ of humans. These animal sacrifices (eg. of bulls and goats) were repeatable, but, says Hebrews, Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many (9:28). Jesus thought of himself as the Suffering Servant (see Isaiah 53) offering his life as a sacrifice, as a ransom for others’ sins (Mark 10:45). Anselm, an eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury argued that sin is an insult to the majesty of God, and at the cross God’s honour was ‘satisfied’. The Protestant Reformers emphasized more our sin breaking God’s holy law, we deserved to incur the penalty – death (Romans 6:23) – but Christ died in our place, paying the penalty and setting us free. We are so important to God that what is destroying us is of ultimate concern to him, and he acts to offer a way out of our misery. We are invited to repent, turn from our sins, and be forgiven and pardoned!
(3) Swedish theologian Gustav Aulen, (Christus Victor) says the cross is mainly about a cosmic drama in which God in Christ does battle with the forces of evil and defeats them. Jesus’ death on the cross not only demonstrates God’s amazing love for us and saves us from our sins, but it also rescues us from death and all the evil powers as well. Through his death he destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and freed us from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14,15; see also Colossians 2:13-15, 2 Timothy 1:10).
The three traditional theories of the Atonement – a demonstration of love, the bearing of sin’s penalty, and victory over evil – may have had more appeal to earlier ages than our own… Australian New Testament scholar Dr. Leon Morris suggests that we might also see the cross addressing problems of futility and frustration (see Romans 8:20, Hebrews 2:8-9); sickness and death (Isaiah 53:4, Matthew 8:17); ignorance (Jeremiah 17:9, 1 Timothy 2:4); loneliness (Genesis 2:18, Mark 15:34, Romans 8:38-39); and selfishness (Luke 9:23, Galatians 2:10, Romans 6:4).
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident, was working twelve hours a day at hard labour. He had lost his family and had been told by the doctors in the Gulag that he had terminal cancer. One day he thought, ‘There is no use going on. I’m soon going to die anyway.’ Ignoring the guards, he dropped his shovel, sat down, and rested his head in his hands.
He felt a presence next to him and looked up and saw an old man he had never seen before, and would never see again. The man took a stick and drew a cross in the sand in front of Solzhenitsyn. It reminded him that there is a Power in the world that is greater than any empire or government, a Power that could bring new life to his situation. He picked up his shovel and went back to work. A year later Solzhenitsyn was unexpectedly released from prison.
Good Friday? Yes. When God’s human creatures are bad, God is good. When we are at our worst, God is at his best…!
But crucifixion was not God’s final word. God raised Jesus from the dead. Easter is bad news and then good news.
Easter turns pain and despair into hope. The American playwright Eugene O’Neill lived tragically, and shortly before his death he wrote poignantly: ‘I can partly understand how God can forgive humans, for we are so weak and ignorant. We have each, in our darkest moments, probably wondered the same thing. But Easter, if it has any message for us at all, says that human tragedy is never ultimate. He who vacated the tomb is alive, and has not vacated his throne! All powers-that-be will become powers-that-have-been (1 Corinthians 2:6). Easter reminds us that God is in control of the universe. The Easter-event – the cross and the resurrection – is about a God who loves eternally, individually and sufficiently.