Paul Griffin considers the relationship between the material and the spiritual in the gospels, and compares this to more recent attempts to portray the life of Jesus

Watching attempts to film the Passion, I am reminded of the saying that if you were to have a video of an hour or two in the life of Jesus, you simply would not understand a thing, even assuming that the language was translated for you.

First of all, you would be faced with the brutal fact that Jesus was an individual, with individual characteristics. Then you would have the difficulty of culturally different customs, expressions, and gestures.

Finally, you would be forced into understanding that even in the short three years of our Lord’s ministry, there were awfully many hours filled with the ordinary and necessary doings of all humans on earth: sleeping, eating, washing, shaving and the rest. Fascinating as it would be to see how he coped with these things, we would be chasing the remotely significant.

Everyday realities

We are not sure how the disciples managed their commissariat, but supposing there were times when they fed themselves, we might see Judas coming up to Jesus and asking the equivalent of ‘How many pints will we need tomorrow, rabbi?’ Aha! we gospel readers assume, Jesus will say something like: ‘Take no thought for the morrow, Judas. Life is more than milk.’ I fear that instead we may hear the upsetting reply: ‘Six pints should do it, Judas.’ Then at least it will be brought home to us that the gospels concentrate on a selection of significant sayings and doings, and that if we complain about not having more detail, we might do better to rest content without the video. The human mind can stand only so much.

The attempt to show the life of Jesus in the filmed Passion is bound to have some of these apparently insignificant aspects, as well as updated versions of sayings and events that would otherwise seem foreign to us. Written testimony can never be the same as continuous film.
Of course, in the reality of the Incarnation even the ordering of milk is part of God’s life with us. He created the milk, taught us how to eat and drink, and how to treat the milkman.

My simplifications are not to vulgarise our faith; just to suggest that in our meditations on the Incarnation of the Son of God as fully man we shall inevitably be down-to-earth without being earthy. Human affairs are generally within our comprehension: for us they have a human meaning. How they come to be touched with divinity is a question in the different domain of faith. Through faith, life seems a series of mysteries, such as can be approached through abstract language. Yet when so approached, they easily become less and less comprehensible, like a Government handout. Jesus, wishing to teach us the mystery of divine love, does his best not to deal only in abstractions. He says: ‘A certain man had two sons…’ He himself does not merely express the doctrine of God’s forgiveness and go back whence he came: he proceeds to be crucified.

Written testimony

The Middle Ages sometimes represented man as a winged tortoise, beating its wings desperately up towards heaven, but constantly weighed down by its cumbersome shell. This is vivid, but hard to square with our understanding of the resurrection -which we say is ‘of the body’. Mystery indeed! with that linking of earth and heaven that distinguishes our belief from that of the Buddhists and other Eastern religions.

There is a reverse side to this, because it is also possible to stress the material at the expense of the spiritual. It is in that direction, perhaps, that films of the Passion begin to seem overweighted. A written account, by its very lack of immediacy, has an advantage over a pictorial. The facts and the conclusions that follow from them can be balanced more easily, and there is time to pause and reflect upon them.

Something valuable can emerge, surely, from these stagings. Even so, I have an obstinate feeling that the main message is too often, and too inevitably, drowned in the milk order.