I don’t know what the impact of Mel Gibson’s The Passion would be on someone who isn’t already familiar with the Christian faith. It is just possible that they might experience the film only as gratuitous violence. And maybe the film’s brilliant and momentary flashbacks into various parts of the Gospel story that help us to interpret the death of Jesus would mean very little.
But one thing I do know. The Passion has already touched and renewed the lives of many lapsed of Christians of all age groups, Evangelical and Catholic alike. Perhaps this is the reason why, under God, the film has been produced just at this time. It has been showing at cinemas in the USA and across Australia since Ash Wednesday, creating all sorts of opportunities for ordinary Christians to share the Gospel with their lapsed friends and relatives. One of my young people remarked that ‘doing the Stations of the Cross will never be the same again.’
A desperate place
While the film was being made, Gibson, who was raised a Catholic but had lapsed, gave a rare interview in which he said that in his mid-thirties the emptiness of his inner life became a despair that almost engulfed him. He was one of the film industry’s most successful actors and directors, but in his own words, ‘I got to a very desperate place. Very desperate … when you get to that point where you don’t want to live and you don’t want to die – it’s a desperate, horrible place to be.’ Gibson went on to say, ‘I hit my knees. And I had to use the passion of Christ and [his] wounds to heal my wounds. And I’ve been meditating on it for twelve years.’
That is why the words, ‘By his wounds we are healed’ occupy the entire screen at the very beginning of the film. And it is an important key – a moment not to be missed. This phrase, from the suffering servant poem in Isaiah 53, explains why the scourging of Jesus is given such prominence by Gibson. In fact, it is obvious that he uses the Gospel accounts and some later Christian reflection as a commentary on the spiritual truth of the Isaiah passage.
Failure to understand this has led to criticism from liberal clergy. They point out how little the New Testament dwells on the physical suffering of Jesus, as if to do so today wrongly emphasizes that suffering in the proclamation of the Gospel. This criticism is hastily made in the light of the common view among scholars that the suffering servant poem undergirds Mark’s Gospel, and echoes throughout the rest of the New Testament. So crucial is the christological application of Isaiah 53 in the early Church that we see Philip ‘beginning with this scripture’ as he was telling the Ethiopian ‘the good news of Jesus’ (Acts 8.35). There is no good reason to doubt that the suffering servant poem was one of those Old Testament passages that Jesus applied to himself: ‘These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled’ (Luke 24.44–45).
In any case, the early Christians didn’t need to be taught what a crucifixion involved. We do. It’s as simple as that. Theirs was a brutal society. They already had a sense of the absolute physical horror of what Jesus embraced for our salvation and healing.
The liberal Christian critics of the film tell us that in this enlightened twenty-first century we should concentrate on the spiritual, emotional and psychological pain of the cross, rather than, as one local church leader said, becoming ‘obsessed again with crucifixes and physical suffering’. Isn’t this further evidence that liberal Christianity really is old-fashioned Gnosticism in modern dress? The suffering of Jesus was all one piece. The physical pain was part of the sacrifice, the offering of his life, as well as the sense of abandonment he experienced. He wasn’t calmly reciting the Daily Office on the Cross (as von Balthazar has pointed out). The words of Psalm 22 reflect the totality of the struggle, the pressure, the pain. It is God who suffers in the flesh of Jesus.
Without ruining the film for those who haven’t yet seen it, I must say that there were two things which put the violence and pain into context. The first was the other great theology of the atonement, the obvious battle with the devil, jostling with the sense of Jesus ‘paying the price’ of our redemption. In fact, the night I saw The Passion just about everyone in the packed cinema gasped when Jesus crushed the head of the slithering serpent in the Garden of Gethsemane. The second was the sense that Jesus really did suffer out of love for each of us. That comes across powerfully. And so it should. In a recent interview, Jim Caviezel, who played the part of Jesus, said that for him the film had been a ‘real spiritual experience’. He went on: ‘I don’t want people to see me; I just want them to see Jesus.’ That prayer of Caviezel has certainly been answered already, thousands of times. He said that he prepared himself for his role by praying – especially the Rosary – by regular confession, and by going to Mass and receiving Holy Communion each day.
You can’t please everybody. In spite of the crowds flocking to The Passion, this country’s professional film critics stroke their chins, shake their heads and wring their hands about the ‘orgy of violence’ created by Gibson; they warn people about the potentially negative effect of the film on teenagers and others who ‘might not be able to take it.’ What utter hypocrisy! These are the same reviewers who acclaim cult movies dripping with violence like Pulp Fiction, or, more recently Kill Bill, as great works of art and significant advances in cinematography, and who sneer at anyone who is worried about the long term effect of such films on our culture.
On one occasion when I was a teenager, an old retired Sydney Anglo-Catholic priest scribbled out some words on a piece of paper as he heard my confession. He told me that they came from an Evangelical hymn, and although they weren’t great poetry, my penance was to pray them each night for a week. They became part of me. Walking slowly home after The Passion and for the next few days, I was unable to get them out of my mind:
Was it the nails, O Saviour,
That bound thee to the tree,
Nay, ‘twas thine everlasting love,
Thy love for me, for me.
O make me understand it,
Help me to take it in,
What it meant to thee, the Holy One,
To bear away my sin.
David Chislett is parish priest of All Saints’ Brisbane.