April 06, 2004

Oh glorious wounds that saved a sinner like me! (A review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ)

[Introductory Note:] After hearing and reading so much about The Passion of The Christ, it almost became anti-climactic to watch it. Almost everything that can be said about it has already been said or written--from reviews, exhortations, critiques to jokes even and blooper reel transcripts. One could almost not be faulted for being unexcited about it or exhibiting an almost blaise attitude toward the film. Yet, I still WANTED to watch The Passion of The Christ. To a certain degree, I felt I NEEDED to watch it---not only because I'm a big Mel Gibson fan (which I am) but because I'm an even bigger Jesus fan.

The film is a courageous attempt at radical evangelization by one who seems the least likely to be a great evangelizer; and I felt that, as a Christian, I should support such a courageous--and in Hollywood terms, a foolhardy--attempt. That the film was deliberately chosen by Gibson to be previewed during lent demonstrates just how much he wanted to underscore the importance of this film as an evangelistic tool and perhaps a faith-reinforcing instrument. That he put down $25Million of his own money when no studio wanted to bankroll it, despite his proven track record at the box-office, shows just how relentless Gibson's resolve was to show the life of the One Man he obviously felt so strongly about. The accounts of the various incidents and challenges that beset the making of the film lent an almost palpable air of spiritual warfare to it; that the film still was made the way Gibson felt (perhaps I should say, discerned) it should be made and is now on every one's lips demonstrates just how an overriding faith can triumph over even the most tremendous challenges.

Oh Glorious Wounds that saved a sinner like me!

It is a strange feeling to enter the moviehouse knowing that you already know what's going to happen in the film you haven't watched yet. Its a warped sense of dejavu--what you already know hasn't happened yet but it soon will and you'll know that you know it when it does.

Entering the moviehouse to watch "The Passion of The Christ" created that sense in me--an almost funny, strange and disconcerting feeling; part of me was already anticipating what I would see--having read the accounts of Christ's passion, suffering and death in the four gospels--my mind was racing, anticipating what I would soon see.

But nothing prepared my mind, let alone my heart, for "The Passion of The Christ."

Far from being a senakulo or a simple passion play brought to very expensive celluloid life, "The Passion of The Christ" throbs with a vitality that could only have been vested by the Spirit. From the very first scene, when a black screen carried Isaiah 53:4-5, I knew this was no ordinary film and its message no ordinary one--even if oft-repeated and equally oft-disregarded. Indeed, the entire film reverberated with that theme---"it was our infirmities that He bore . . .pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins"--from the opening scene at Gethsemane to the last gasp of Christ on the cross, WE were at the center of The Passion of The Christ. It is not a film about the historical Christ; it is not a film about a man called Christ. It is a tale of OUR lives, for WE, as a people, and OUR SINS were at the center of the film. If not for US and OUR SINS, "The Passion of The Christ" would be an expensive tale of a tragic life; instead, because the film put US and OUR SINS at the center, it becomes a redemptive account of a life and a love that is beyond tragedy but that is also beyond measure.

Halfway through the film, you start asking yourself why.

Why did Christ have to be treated like a common criminal, mocked, disrespected, scourged and beaten to an inch of His life, made to carry a cross and crucified as a common criminal?

Why did not Christ simply tell the jews that "I'm sorry, I was mistaken. I'm not your messiah, so please stop the scourging?"

Why did Christ have to endure all this pain and suffering?

And even before you finish all these questions, the answer becomes obvious, but no less painful.

Why? Because of me. Christ bore all these for me.

That's when the enormity of Christ's sacrifice becomes even more real. After watching "The Passion of The Christ", I will NEVER EVER be able to read the narratives of Christ's passion in the same way.

Each blow, each lash, each horrible flesh-breaking thrust becomes etched in your mind; costly reminders that this is the cost of our freedom. This is why I am free today--free to worship Him, free to believe in Him, free to be with Him. Each and every drop of blood on Christ's face and body has my name (and yours as well) written on it.

That's when the enormity of Gibson's courage and faith kick in. And you also start to ask why.

Why did he spend $25 Million of his own money on a "bible story" (as hollywood executives dismissively called it), with no assurance that it would be returned in box-office revenue, let alone critical acceptance?

Why did he put on the line his professional reputation to make a movie about Christ's last 12 hours on earth?

Why? Because it had to be done.

Because Christ's passion, death and resurrection had to be demonstrated to a world grown numb to suffering, violence, and death.

Because the example of a life and a love given freely and unstintingly to people who cared not at all for such a life and a love was a balm for souls grown tired and weary from apathy and indifference.

Christify the workplace, we cry. Yes, indeed. But how?

Find it in our heart to tell the story of great Christ's love for us in whatever way we can and we will be able to Christfy the workplace. We are not all Mel Gibson and we cannot all make films like "The Passion of The Christ" but we are all God's people, drawn to Him by His great love for us, commissioned to spread the truth that needs to be told in these times--that there is a love that is greater than all the world, and it is the redemptive, miraculous, victorious love of our Lord.

Find it in our heart to tell of Christ's passion, death and resurrection in ways that are familiar to us--in loving service, in faith-filled teachings, in Spirit-inspired singing, in grateful worship, in lives led for the Lord who gives and IS the meaning of our lives--and we would have Christified the workplace.

Christify the workplace, we cry. Mel Gibson did that, in courageous fashion. He put his faith where his mouth should have been; he not only spoke about his faith in words but he spoke about it in images that will not soon, if at all, be forgotten. As Saint Francis of Assissi puts it, "proclaim the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary." Mel Gibson proclaimed the gospel, not only through words, but also through his work and also even his own life. It is safe to say that the Hollywood that rebuffed Gibson's "bible story" won't be the same again; as it is, they now talk excitedly about "The Passion of The Christ". People of every stripe and denomination discuss it on messageboards and online fora everywhere. Think about Sodom and Gomorrah stopping all their sin and talking about the gospel of truth and the gospel of life and you will realize just how radical the effect of "The Passion of The Christ" has been.

All because one man gave in to the grace to tell the story of another Man who was all grace.

God's grace is present throughout the movie. I spoke of Gibson's unforgettable images and these abound in the film: Mary wiping Christ's blood after his scourging with cloth given to her by Claudia, Pilate's wife; Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross and bearing Christ with it as well, are among them.

However, among the most unforgettable images of the film, for me, are the various pietas that inhabit it.

The first pieta is particularly heart-rending: Mary, the Mother of God, lying prone on the floor above the dungeon where Christ is chained, simply sharing a heartbeat with her son. No words are spoken; none are needed. This scene may not appear in scripture but in this one scene, Gibson demonstrates the depth of his faith and the clarity of his discernment--Christ may have been the son of God, but He was also Mary's son (and this is shown by a light moment shared between the young Jesus and Mary when He, the son of God, is told by his mother to wash his hands and shed that dirty apron before eating and whose carpentry work--an exceptionally high table--is shrugged off by His mother--"it will never catch on.") In this first pieta, Mary's love for her son shines true and through. You realize that Mary, driven by her faith in God, keeps all that is happening to her son in her heart, but she is also pained by what is happening to her son; yet she trusts in God and loves her son, even as she submits. despite the pain.

The second pieta is equally unforgettable: Mary, accompanied by Magdalene and John, rush ahead along the via crucis to where Christ will pass; as Christ falls, Mary rushes to Christ and almost pleads to Him, as she tells her son, "I am here for you. Let me die with you." As this scene unfolds, we are brought back to a time when Christ is a child and falls while walking; Mary drops everything and rushes to Jesus, cradling Him in her arms, soothing his pain with the balm of her voice and the warmth of her bosom--to be rewarded by a smile on the face of the child Jesus. The love that Mary has for Christ is that love that will make true that plea--"let me die with you." But on the via crucis, Mary's plea to the fallen Christ is not met by a smile this time but a guttural rasp, "See Mother, I make all things new." And even as Mary does not fully understand why this is happening, she once again submits, in love and in faith.

The last pieta is the most unforgettable: Mary, accompanied by Magdalene and John, carrying the broken, battered and dead body of The Christ in her arms. No words are spoken; none are needed. Mary's tears do not only stream down her cheek but her heart as well; Mary's heart,which has kept all the things that God has given and shown her,cries and the heavens cry with her. Mary grieves, not for her son and not for herself, but for us. And in this final, most familiar tableaux, the pieta of our Mother Mary, she claims back for herself,even if only fleetingly, HER son in the company of those He loved most and who loved Him back: the gentle John, whom He gave Mary to as mother and the sinner Magdalene, whom He saved from a certain and deserved death; in doing so, we are brought personally into the tableaux of Christ's death at the foot of the cross as the children to whom Christ gave Mary to as our mother and as the sinners whom Christ saved from a certain and deserved death.

The other most unforgettable image is that of Heaven crying--a single drop of rain falls from Heaven, unleashing the tempest that destroys the temple as Christ dies--a fitting metaphor for God's sorrow at the death of His son but also a powerful image of the liberation of mankind from sin. The almost poetic fall of that single rain drop--a tear from God's eyes--was not only a good cinematic touch but also a powerful way of showing the depths of sorrow for our sin and also of the great joy of the Father that His son remained faithful to Him till the end.

The last unforgettable image is that of the Resurrection--done simply through a rapidly emptying shroud, the face of our Savior and His pierced hands and a flash of blinding light. In a brief scene, lasting no more than five seconds, all the catechism of our childhood on the resurrection is made real and the impact of Christ's victory over death and sin is made tangible. No theatrics, no fireworks--just Christ rising from death, as God this time and no longer as man, having triumphed over death and sin through His own death and having brought us all life by the same token. That scene brought tears to my eyes if only because the promise of the empty tomb is what all of us Christians live for; and seeing it, even in cinematic terms, simply affirms my faith in the resurrection that we have all been promised beyond any degree of catechism or teaching.

Billy Graham is said to have remarked, after watching "The Passion of The Christ", that it is a lifetime of sermons in two hours. Indeed. For some, like me, its a lifetime of sermons and exhortations.

By all means, watch "The Passion of The Christ" but watch it with your heart also and not only with your mind for it is a film fuelled by faith, led by the spirit and driven by prayer, told in unforgettable images by a courageous soul and a loving heart. Watch "The Passion of The Christ" in faith and proclaim our Lord's passion, death and suffering in our lives henceforth as we die to ourselves this Holy Week so that we may live again in Christ on Easter.