Each Good Friday I ask my husband “Can I show Cassie (our 13-year-old daughter) “The Passion of the Christ”? And each year he replies: “No, Not yet, not for another good many years”. It is true that Mel Gibson’s 2004 film is R-rated for a reason, and was criticised when newly released as being unnecessarily graphic. Parts of it are certainly extremely uncomfortable to watch, most especially because, to use a Hollywood cliché’ it is certainty “based on a true story”.
I first saw the movie on “the big screen” in Ararat, Western Victoria. In fact, I helped organise a community event with people from other local churches, to offer a special showing with discounted admission. A delightful local Mum (who later became a firm friend) and I walked up and down Ararat High Street, requesting flyers to be placed in shop windows. Such initiatives were encouraged by the production company, who also provided free copies of “The Gospel of John” with a cover branding matching the film. My recollection is there was concern that the film, expensive to make, would struggle at the Box office with standard publicity, as it was not sponsored by a Major Studio and was made by an independent production company.
In addition, the producer – actor Mel Gibson – conceived the movie to use authentic languages, therefore it was either left for the viewer to soak in unfamiliar Latin and Aramaic or scan the subtitles. And the censors moved in to give it an R (Restricted to Adults 18+) rating, usually a death-knell for many productions.
Fears of a “flop” were unfounded – “The Passion of the Christ” is the highest grossing foreign language film in the US Box office history. It is also the highest-grossing “R” rated film, earning $370 million. And, in a rarity for Hollywood releases, re-entered the number 1 spot at the box-office for the weekend of Good Friday, 2004.
The reason it has stayed with me (and despite owning the DVD, I have not watched it repeatedly) is that it depicted so movingly the human side, the very ordinary side, of the – as Graham Kendrick’s song “Meekness ad Majesty” proclaims – “Man who was God”. The way that scenes of blood and gore are intercut with flashbacks of happier times, such as the scenes of Jesus as a small child being protected by his mother, who was powerless to protect him as an adult. And especially the juxtaposing of the wounded, bloodied, half-dead, miserable figure hanging pitifully on the cross of Capital Punishment, then interjected with the clean, beautiful face of Christ only hours before, with his disciples, breaking bread, sharing wine and proclaiming “This is my blood, which is given for you”….the next frame being a single red drop falling off his jagged wounds high up on the wooden cross onto the ground below.
No, I’m not being paid as a Movie Critic (unfortunately). But, trying to recapture what struck me about this depiction – the very “human-ness” of events, and people, and reactions, that have now become so much of Christian almost-folklore that they have become unreal and somewhat sanitised.
In similar descriptive vein is Irishman Thomas Kelly’s 1804 Hymn “Stricken, smitten, and afflicted” – a sombre affair in both lyrics and tune. The opening line draws from biblical Isaiah 53:4 “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted”.
In verse two, we are forced to consider the depth of Christ’s passion, his groaning, his betrayal, his insults, and his unmatched grief. The deepest stroke that pierced him, however, was the stroke that divine justice gave.
Sometimes we hear the cross described as a symbol of how precious we were to God. This is true, so long as we understand that we were not some diamond in the rough that irresistibly drew God to us.
The cross certainly shows us the depth of God’s love, but is a love wholly undeserved. For the cross, verse three reminds us, displays the true nature of sin and human guilt. Verse four elegantly summarises the hope of the gospel: “Lamb of God, for sinners wounded, sacrifice to cancel guilt! None shall ever be confounded who on him their hope have built.”
Easter is viewed by many, especially in Australia, as a wonderful 4-day “Long Weekend” to refresh and send time with family. Traditional foodstuffs such as Hot Cross Buns and Easter Eggs, once specifically symbolic of Christian (or at least “New Birth”) concepts have lost their meaning through commercialism, lack of education and the annoying insistence of stores displaying them earlier and earlier each year. (I very much enjoy consuming “Hot Cross Buns” but I find it pretty weird to see them in the supermarket in early January, even before the chronologically next “Commercial Festival” of Valentine’s Day!)
The essence of the celebration of Easter is indeed the “Passion of the Christ” (the process, not the film title). And not just the “Oh Happy Day” that many modern churches like to focus on, but the extreme emotional highs and lows of some of the Bible’s most significant events.
Traditional Churches call this period “Holy Week”, commencing with “Palm Sunday”, celebrating Christ’s triumphant ride into Jerusalem on a donkey (which was last Sunday), then, in quick succession, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, then Easter Sunday (or the “Day of Resurrection). Indeed the aforementioned film is a depiction essentially of the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, on the day of his crucifixion in Jerusalem.
The story opens in the Garden of Olives where Jesus has gone to pray after the Last Supper. Betrayed by Judas Iscariot, the controversial Jesus is arrested and taken back within the city walls of Jerusalem. There, the leaders of the Pharisees confront him with accusations of blasphemy; subsequently, his trial results with the leaders condemning him to his death. Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Palestine, for his sentencing. Pilate listens to the accusations levelled at Jesus by the Pharisees. Realising that his own decision will cause him to become embroiled in a political conflict, Pilate defers to King Herod in deciding the matter of how to persecute Jesus. However, Herod returns Jesus to Pilate who, in turn, gives the crowd a choice between which prisoner they would rather to see set free–Jesus, or Barrabas. The crowd chooses to have Barrabas set free.
Thus, Jesus is handed over to the Roman soldiers and is brutally flagellated. Bloody and unrecognisable, he is brought back before Pilate who, once again, presents him to the thirsty crowd-assuming they will see that Jesus has been punished enough. The crowd, however, is not satisfied. So, Pilate washes his hands of the entire dilemma, ordering his men to do as the crowd wishes. Whipped and weakened, Jesus is presented with the cross and is ordered to carry it through the streets of Jerusalem, all the way up to Golgotha. There, more corporal cruelty takes place as Jesus is nailed to the cross–suffering, he hangs there, left to die. Initially, in his dazed suffering, Jesus is alarmed that he has been abandoned by God his father. He then beseeches God. At the moment of his death, nature itself over-turns.
The Bible says in Isaiah 53:5 “But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.”
This is the essence of the Christian faith.
That we believe that somebody else took the responsibility, the blame and then the punishment, not for their own wrongdoings, but for others, and ultimately the whole human race.
In our daily lives, at least in my experience, this is, sadly, rarely the case.
Ephraim R. McLean cynically coined “The six phases of a big project”, a favourite of office posters in the 1970’s.
The “Six Phases” have been jocularly described as:
4. Search for the guilty,
5. Punishment of the innocent, and
6. Praise and honour for the non-participants.
The unhappy fact is that there is more truth than fiction in the list.
Unfortunately, with many a project there is lack of support in early stages, and then quick abandonment if things go wrong, followed by finger-pointing and blame-laying.
Should things go badly, many have a tendency to wash their hands, Pontius-Pilate like, and distance themselves. Little responsibility is taken.
However, should the project, in the end, be a success, often there is a tendency to “bask in reflected glory”, where those who did not put in the effort and energy still want the recognition which should in fact go to those who put in the hard work from the beginning.
I have chronicled elsewhere, struggles I have personally had with various situations in life, be it personal or professional. At the root of some of the issues I have dealt with, is tousling with the concept of people accepting responsibility (and even blame) for their own part in events.
In some instances, finding true solutions to problems, including forgiveness and reconciliation has proved elusive. Because if there is no admission or acceptance of wrongdoing, and responsibility is not taken for one’s actions, then true restoration is impossible. Forgiving a person who takes no responsibility is in many ways “Cheap Grace” – it may bring relief or release to the “forgiver”, but any attempt at solving problems will be like my own inept efforts at gardening. (Yes, whipper-snippering over the weeds to temporarily keep them down).
Pulling a thistle out by the roots disturbs the ground, and can be hard to do (and requires strength, and time) if the roots are deep. Once it is done, however, it has been done completely and healing can begin. On the other hand, just chopping the things off at ground level is only a temporary fix, and before long the weeds are just as high as they once were.
Locking people into a “Groundhog Day” scenario of repeated conflict which is never quite resolved, because even when particular situations or issues are seemingly sorted out, the underlying issues remain, just waiting to come back and bite, like the snakes on Greek Priestess Medusa’s head.
What a contrast this is to the reported life and work of Christ, especially in the last week of his life!
He took the responsibility and blame for deeds he did not do, sins he did not personally commit. Christians believe that in so doing, our own sin and guilt is washed away. Even though we continue to “sin” day by day.
Whatever your own personal religious beliefs, may you take the time to reflect on the events of Easter some 2000 years ago. As often quoted on Remembrance days, reflecting on other sacrifices “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. (John15:3)
Let us all be a little kinder, a little more loving, a little less proud, a little less defensive perhaps, be the “bigger person” and open our hearts to each other this Easter time.
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, see him dying on the tree!
‘Tis the Christ by man rejected; yes, my soul, ’tis he, ’tis he!
‘Tis the long expected Prophet, David’s son, yet David’s Lord;
by his Son God now has spoken: ’tis the true and faithful Word.
Tell me ye who hear him groaning, was there ever grief like his?
Friends thro’ fear his cause disowning, foes insulting his distress;
many hands were raised to wound him, none would interpose to save;
but the deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that Justice gave.
Ye who think of sin by lightly nor suppose the evil great
here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load;
’tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed, Son of Man and Son of God.
Here we have a firm foundation, here the refuge of the lost;
Christ’s the Rock of our salvation, his the name of which we boast.
Lamb of God, for sinners wounded, sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded who on him their hope have built.