George Austin turns gloomy this month after viewing a particularly gratuitous portrayal of treachery cruelty and brutality
Traditions change, sometimes for the good and sometimes not. Good Friday used to be a day for visiting preachers to conduct the Three Hours devotion from noon to three o’clock, usually based on the ‘Seven Words from the Cross.’ In the twenty years since I was first appointed Archdeacon of York, I did this sporadically at first, and then less and less.
During the Passion
It became my practice and devotion when I was not preaching to listen during those same three hours to one of the Bach Passions. J.S. Bach has that gift of painting pictures in the music he writes, and never more so than in his religious compositions, and I know that on every Good Friday now, thanks to Bach, my vision and understanding of the Passion of Christ deepens.
This year it was especially the bass aria Mache dich, ‘Make clean my heart from sin, at the descent from the cross that touched me, for the disciples now as well as then must come to terms with the awful thing that has happened to Jesus.
As the Passion ended, I decided I would also watch a DVD of the Mel Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ, which I first saw in the cinema when it was released. On that occasion I found it moving, disturbing, devotional – and something I could never talk about afterwards. This time it was somehow different.
When Pilate refused at first to put Jesus to death he ordered – as a compromise – that he should be beaten, but not seriously hurt. This was largely ignored by the thuggish Roman soldiers and the pain and suffering began, continuing even more violently when a fearful Pilate was threatened by the Sanhedrin that he would not be regarded in Rome as ‘Caesar’s friend’ if one who claimed to be a king was not put to death.
The brutality continued as Jesus tried to carry his cross to Golgotha, a beating so unnecessarily savage that it would have broken ribs and limbs, and perhaps even killed him, if it had really taken place in that way. Certainly he could not have climbed a green hill far away with
such a burden (as indeed he did not in reality since the hill of Calvary was a mound just outside the old city walls, where now stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).
To add to the cruel and unlimited violence of the soldiers, the film shows a raven flying to the cross on which hung the impenitent thief and gouging out his eyes. The pitiless god who oversaw this was not the one who was giving up his incarnate life out of love for his creation.
the headgear of the priests resembled a bishop’s mitre
As the final coup de grace on the cross, the victim’s legs were broken so that he could not longer push himself upwards on the cross in order to breathe and would die of asphyxia. St John points out that this could not be so for Jesus, in order that Scripture might be fulfilled, that ‘not a bone of him shall be broken’. This made the manner of the beatings an unnecessary addition, done by the soldiers for the own gratification, and maybe depicted in this way for a more modern gratification. I shall not watch that DVD again.
Yet in spite of that there were three moments in the film that were for me immediately modern. When Jesus was first beaten, he was attacked from behind with a stick and knocked to the ground – and that week we had seen videos scenes on television news broadcasts of Ian Tomlinson, an innocent man on his way home from work, attacked in the same way from behind by a Metropolitan policeman and dying a few moments later. Now the police officer has identified himself to his superiors and been suspended.
The second moment was at the trial of Jesus, first before the chief priests and elders in the Temple and then before Pilate. The headgear of the priests resembled a bishop’s mitre, and as they bayed for the blood of Jesus it brought to mind again the July Synod debate on women bishops, when more than two
thirds of the House of Bishops rejoiced to show no mercy to opponents, unable even to recognize them as loyal Anglicans. For the followers of Jesus two thousand years later it is plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose from our chief priests and elders.
The third followed their determination to find a satisfactory reason for killing the prophet Jesus, and charges were brought, for instance, that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. The response to that was ridicule – just like the ploy so often used in Synod debates – and repeated when Jesus was brought before a camp King Herod. When the reasons were not enough to convince Pontius Pilate, the arm twisting began: ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ Then the clincher: ‘If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend.’
Vengeance at last
For me the parallel came as I read a feature article in The Times by Philip Collins on the quick departure of Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick after the blunder – inadvertently revealing details of an anti-terrorist operation – which was to destroy a fine career. Collins points out that ‘Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, accepted the offer [of his resignation] with great alacrity…to the apparent surprise of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and the Home Secretary’
The reason for this, he alleged, was that Mr Johnson was, at the very least, poorly disposed to Mr Quick because of the bizarre search of Damien Green’s parliamentary office in pursuit of an illusory crime,’ so that ‘Mr Johnson may feel he has got his man.’ To make it more curious, Quick’s successor as head of anti-terrorism is the man who investigated the charges against Tony Blair (whose assistant was the victim of a very early morning arrest), charges which also were eventually thrown out.
In spite of the increasing revulsion I felt as I watched The Passion of the Christ, the fact that the events of that first Good Friday were paralleled today was a salutary lesson, a due reminder that treachery, brutality, distortion and the rest are still a part of the sin which so easily besets us.