2004—Second Sunday of Lent—C
Anyone who has ever gone to a horror film with me can tell you that I spend most of the film looking away, covering my eyes or with my coat over my head. When I went to see the recent Mel Gibson film, Passion of the Christ, I had a similar experience. I spent half the film looking away. I simply could not bear to see the gratuitous violence depicted in the film. I will not give you a blow by blow description of the film, because there are simply so many blows, strikes, beatings, of Jesus that we could talk about nothing else. I went to the film with I think an open mind. Yes, I had heard and read much of the criticism and was wary of the biblical literalism, the possible anti-semitism and the overall lack of sensitivity to developments of understanding of this pivotal moment in the life of Jesus and its impact on Christian-Jewish relations throughout the centuries. But I also hear the testimony of many who were deeply moved to see such a realistic portrayal of "what Jesus suffered for our sin".
Since I saw the Passion of the Christ, I have been struggling to understand my predominantly negative reaction to the film when so many people are finding it a "transfiguring" experience? I know that as I watched I felt dismay in that so many would see this as a "true" portrayal of the final hours of Jesus, without any benefit of biblical or historical criticism. For many years now Christian and Jewish scripture scholars have been studying the passion narratives, each of which is different and have been at great pains to understand the texts in the context of the time when they were written and the theological reflection of each of the authors. So much work has been done on understanding the nature of Jewish piety and temple worship to try to understand the complexity of the reaction to Jesus' preaching and action.
The portrayal of the Jewish leaders is "uncritical" and stereotypical, with no regard for the research that has contributed to a better understanding of the passion narratives. Is the film anti-semitic? I don't think it intends to be deliberately but it portrays the Jews who opposed Jesus as venal, cruel to the point of inhumanity. And I think that is the point. I think the film is more anti-human than anti semitic. The portrayal of the mass of humanity, symbolized by the majority of Jews and the majority of Romans is as blood-thirsty, brutal, torturers of the human body and spirit. When you enter the world portrayed in this film you are entering a universe where there is little redemption to begin with. The good in Jesus is pitted against the evil that surrounds him. It is an "us" and "them" world.
Today's first reading tells us a different story. It reminds us that we are sons and daughters of Abraham (and Sarah). All those descendants, as countless as the stars, they are the Jews, Muslims and Christians who trace a shared religious heritage to this one "father in faith". How is it that we continue to tell the story of our salvation in such a way that it pits one believer against another. As our common origin is God who creates us, our spiritual origin is in this one person, open to God's revelation and covenant with him. Why must we who share the same spiritual origin accuse and blame the "other"?
The second thing that disturbed me about the passion of Christ was the portrayal of Jesus. Why did I not feel a connection with him, with his suffering? What was wrong with me? It was only afterwards that I realized that this Jesus was not a human Jesus, but a superhuman Jesus. After being beaten to a point where no ordinary human being could go on, this Jesus stands up, as if to say "Lay it on." I could not help but think of a certain kind of "machismo" that says "stand up and take it like a man". Here is a picture of a Jesus made in the image and likeness of the perfect man who will not buckle under torture, who will hold out to the end. Here was another "braveheart" willing to be ruthlessly beaten to show his true mettle. I do not doubt that Jesus suffered intense physical and emotional pain in his passion. I have prayed and wept with the image many times. But the Jesus whom I have known and loved is human and not "superhuman". That's why we were in the desert last week, to remember that Jesus was tempted to be not human, but superhuman. That's why we are in the mountain today with Jesus to see his Glory, God's spirit dwelling in him. He is the beloved, He is the chosen.
What I struggle with most in this film is the question, where is God in this terrible suffering of Jesus? To think that God is in heaven demanding this kind of sacrifice to appease, placate or win back sinful humankind can lead you to wonder if God is a God of love at all? The portrayal of Jesus' suffering and death is so extreme that you can only feel that God would have to be no Father at all to let his son suffer in such a way. Where is God in the passion? Choosing to be powerless, like Jesus is in his death, God may be looking away, unable to behold the face of Jesus. Or God may be in the mother, Mary whose love and grief for her son is what really spoke to me in the film. God's love, a mother's love.
If you choose to see the Passion of the Christ, you may be profoundly moved or you may be deeply disturbed. But if you are like me and will spend most of the time looking away, then look to the Risen Jesus who call you "chosen' who calls you "beloved."