"Mel Gibson’s Passion was good for me. It caused me to dig at least this deep. It overwhelmed and quieted me. It was less and more than I expected. What I lost was not worth keeping. What I gained is precious and I wouldn’t miss it."

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Where Our Little Passions Begin
by Stephen Bransford

"If we’ve learned anything from the Passion it’s that the price of your forgiveness has been paid in full. You can’t out-sin God’s love."

Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of The Christ” presented too much for me to process. For a time, I was simply quieted, my senses and sensibilities overwhelmed. Personal images of the trial, torture and crucifixion of Jesus were eclipsed and intimidated by Mel’s large and filmcraft-empowered tour de force. I came away feeling slightly lost, treading water in a pool of issues too deep for me.

One review comment kept going through my head; “this is not entertainment.” Well said. If the Passion is less than entertainment it is also much more than that. What it is and is not has become a large preoccupation for just about anyone who cares to voice an opinion these days. Atheist Christopher Hitchens, sounding forth on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country recently summarized the work: “Gibson’s a fascist,” he said. (Now that’s entertainment.)

I’m exhilarated by this movie. I’m blushing with pleasure at the way Gibson allowed history’s only acceptable human sacrifice to take him seriously as a motion picture artist. (The choice of words here is quite deliberate.) If the Passion of Christ does not take you seriously, make your pulse pound, give you nightmares, raise the hair on your neck, thrill you to the brink of Hell and promise you Heaven, then I don’t care what kind of artist you are, you cannot approach the sacrifice of God’s Son with any semblance of integrity. I sense that Mel danced in that fire, trembled with that terror, and will walk with a psychic limp ‘til the end of days. Call him a bit touched, crazy. That speaks well of him.

He says that a period of personal sorrow, repentance and contrition over sin led him to attempt this work. I say it shows in every loving frame of the movie. I thank Mel for his brave offering, and I thank God for enabling him to see it through. In that, there has been a new mark set for Hollywood. Not a mark they can live up to, mind you, nor even understand. It’s a damning mark they will puzzle over until they find just the right gossip to neutralize Gibson, marginalize his movie, and explain its huge power as something sinister and perverse.

Having said that, however, I turn now to my own discomfort with the movie. Strangely, after all the build up, I was not as deeply moved as I expected to be. Yes, I shed tears, beginning with Mary’s first view of her arrested son. A trickle of tears continued to seep out until the very end. But I’m a shameless weeper, and other movies have touched me more. The Great Passion of Christ that I know in my spirit did not sufficiently materialize for me in all that lovely imagery and relentless gore. Beneath the flood of soul-stirring “amens” and “bravos” and “nice work, Mel” that whispered from me as I watched, I came away with nagging twinges of things “out of place,” things I could not put my finger on. I’m feeling that something has been lost as well as gained in my viewing of this Passion, and I think this is a proper response for anyone who sees it.

The comments that follow will largely assume that the reader has seen the movie: Mel’s Passion was less than I expected. Or wanted. If Mel diminished the Passion for me, I think he did it by taking my imagination out of the equation and for two unrelenting hours, replaced it with his own. But then one is asked, how can you make a serious movie from Scripture and not do exactly that? Exactly! Word-pictures from Scripture leave a lot of room for interpretation. Movies replace the individual’s own picture with just one.

I have been at work for years on a movie script about Peter’s Passion. (Gibson’s Peter disappointed me.) My Peter is not a buffoon, nor a coward, nor a red-necked fisherman with over-bushy eyebrows. Nor does my cursing Peter deny his Lord so wimpishly as Gibson’s does. My Peter is not afraid at the trial of Jesus-- he’s destroyed! He bellows, “I don’t [cursing] know this man!” And he means it. But, how would my state-of-the-art Hollywood-empowered Peter affect the preconceived notions of my Christian family? How much would they gain or lose from seeing it? Alas, maybe it should remain the movie of my imagination. Not for public consumption.

So, the first problem in any movie of the Passion is that it will inevitably fall short of the great reality of the actual events. Jesus suffered far more than can be shown. Far more than our best minds can conceive. None can approximate the agony of the one true Innocent who carries the sins of the world before God. This is not revealed in the kiss of betrayal. Not in the flesh-ripping lash of the Roman scourge. Not in the pool of blood, smeared in violent excess around the whipping post. Not in the spittle running down his beard. Not in the insult of the crown of thorns, nor in the ignorant challenges from religious and political leaders mocking his Kingship and his Kingdom. Not in the tragic near-miss of his rescue by Pilate. Not in the bearing of the cross, nor in the piercing with the nails.

The true agony was inaudible, invisible. It was made supreme in the fact that it was not inevitable. He could have verbally out-duelled Pilate and Herod. He could have outfoxed the High Priest. He had often escaped mobs. He could have called an army of angels. He privately confessed to his disciples before going to Gethsemane, “Don’t you know I’ve come to bring fire on the earth? And how I wish it were already kindled.” I think his jaw clenched over that line. Do you see the Son of God engaging in a moment of wishful thinking? What do we hear? He could have done it-- he could have incinerated the whole damn lot of us. And some day that fire will be kindled and we will be as dumb before Him as he was before Pilate. But on the day of our Salvation, he chose to stay the course. “Not my will, Thine be done.” He chose to reveal the Father’s love for his ruined people. And on the cross, suddenly something unexpected happened --- the Father abandoned him.

Jesus Speaks for a Fallen World
Here is the Passion. Here is what perfect obedience earns you; “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?!” And there is no answer. In this moment Jesus speaks for every inexplicable tragedy common to a fallen world.

But this screaming Son of God is hidden behind the tortured figure on Gibson’s cross. It takes a healthy and informed Christian imagination to reach toward the depth of that cry and know that you will never get there. He’s beyond you in a place you can never know. Not even this word-picture is nearly adequate. Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs tells us that many imperfect and clumsy Christian disciples have been tortured to death for their faith and have sung hymns and forgiven their killers as they died because He was with them-- as he appeared to Stephen as he was being stoned-- and they feared no evil. ---But not Jesus. He was abandoned in the jaws of Hell because he was innocent, because he was perfectly obedient, and because he carried our guilt. How do you picture that?

Mel gave us a lot of the physical details of the suffering because that’s what movies do. And for that, I thank him. Protestants are notorious in their rush to the Resurrection, skipping lightly past the depth and duration of the Passion, displaying an empty cross and an empty tomb. Catholics are notorious for their glorification of the Via Dolorosa, the stations of the cross, the crucifix. We do need each other.

We need to see the physical torture in Gibson’s Passion, even though it falls short of the full ugliness. Very little of the actual suffering of Jesus took place with such lovely backlighting and convenient staging. The crux of it, the actual propitiation for the sins of the world, is a cosmic mystery play staged for the eyes of God alone. But Mel, to the best of his ability, tried to put it in our faces, spraying us with the water and the blood.

I suspect that after exposure to too many slasher films, or a Jurrasic Park or An Interview with the Vampire, today’s movie-going audience has lost its capacity for a vital imagination. Gibson gave them a Passion they could grasp. The beating with rods. The punches to the chops. The scourging with the cat of nine tails. The rough burlap garment thrown across His bloody back, aggravating the deep contusions beneath the weight of the cross. Mary’s bloody lips coming away from kissing her son’s crucified feet. The piercing of His bloated side and Mary and John standing in the hot putrid stream that spews from the hole—oh yes, Mel!. (At this point in the movie, a few in the audience were inclined to fulfill Isaiah’s prophesy and hide their faces from him.)

This is the physical power of Mel’s movie and it repulses those who do not embrace the full human physicality of Jesus. More highly evolved human beings would never invent a story like this. They would rather a virgin conceive and give birth to a god-hero without messily having her water break. Religious and well-educated human beings have had historic trouble with God in the full human jacket, complete with morning breath and bowel movements. Especially if that body is to inherit eternal life. It simply does not compute. But the Incarnation is a gritty Gospel idea that leaves no wiggle room for the highly evolved who would see Him as somehow suspended above the vileness of the real world in Salvador Dali-type splendor. Mel properly went for the full human jacket. It discomforted my intellectual pride, and for that, I thank him.

Discomfort, Questions, Concerns, and An Answer
I felt uncomfortable with Gibson’s Mary. Those Maia Morgenstern eyes! The superior knowledge she seemed to have of the coming ordeal. The wise composure she exhibited as Mary Magdalene fell apart, weeping as ordinary women do. She was a more Catholic Mary than I’m used to. And at the end of the crucifixion, that send-up of Michelangelo’s Pieta with Mary holding Jesus’ body at the foot of the cross! Holy moly! Suddenly she turns to stare directly into the camera! Eye contact. This is how Gibson identifies the true Christ killers. We are all guilty. You, me, everyone, whether we watch this movie or not. There is no room for anti-Semitism in the gaze of this woman. She nails us with the Mother of all guilt trips, as if saying; “Boy, is this going to cost you a bunch of ‘Hail Marys.’” Yes, I was just a bit uncomfortable with this Mary.

But thank you, Mel. This blissful Protestant needed to be reminded that Mary was indeed the only being of all time selected to bear God’s seed as a virgin. She was called “blessed among women.” And at her infant son’s circumcision, the holy man Simeon prophesied those awful words, “A sword shall pierce your soul.” She knew before anyone else, and more clearly than the others, that a Via Dolorosa lay ahead. Jesus began separating from her at age 12; “Don’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?” In his ministry he denied her, “Who is my mother? Anyone who does the will of my Father.” Mel pictured it right, Mary dealt with her grief in advance of the Passion.

Luke interviewed Mary late in her life, and in his Gospel, shows us the secrets that Mary pondered in her heart for all those years; Her personal visit with the angel Gabriel, the leaping of John the Baptist in his mother’s womb, the beauty of Mary’s Spirit-inspired Magnificat. Perhaps a more Catholic vision of Mary has been good for me. But I’ll stop short of the ‘Hail Marys,’ thank you.

The young boys who tormented Judas bothered me. Why did Gibson choose this artistic vehicle as the means to drive the Betrayer of the Lord to his suicide? It’s not in scripture. In fact, Scripture says that Satan entered into Judas. Where is it written that innocent children morphed into demons and hounded a helpless Judas to his hanging tree? It’s not there. OK, I told myself, Mel decided that the Betrayer of the Lord would be hounded by ordinary boys mocking him the way ordinary boys do. It was Judas’ guilty conscience that saw them as demons. And in fact, that is the correct interpretation of Mel’s device.

But here, he skated on the thin ice of anti-Semitism according to Christopher Hitchins. Hitchins, on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, pointed out something this blissful Protestant did not know; that long-standing Catholic traditions from the Middle Ages assert that Jewish children are demon possessed. Now, I’ll have to take Hitchens word for it because he didn’t cite his source, but just for argument’s sake, let’s say he’s right. Mel might have selected a better device.

I’ve become troubled by the stench of anti-Semitism on the Passion. I’m not referring now to Gibson’s movie, nor to the Passion Plays staged throughout the world which, on rare occasion, have incited mobs to attack local Jews. But I’m talking about the Great Passion of Christ Himself as recorded in the book of Matthew, the most Jewish of the four Gospels. It depicts Pilate as washing his hands in public and declaring himself clean of innocent blood. In response to this, the Jewish mob cries, “His blood be on us and on our children.” My problem is not whether they actually said such a terrible thing. They did. I believe the very words of Scripture through the pen of the writers were inspired and ordained by God-- I have no choice but to acknowledge it as fact. But my greater problem is with a God who would allow Matthew to record words that would spawn so much ignorant bloody reprisal in the centuries to follow. In human terms, the author of this Scripture could be held liable in the largest class action suit of all time with awards high enough to bankrupt Heaven.

We know that generations of so-called Christians have quoted Matthew’s Gospel to support their participation in the worldwide persecution of Jews. “They asked for it! They Killed the Lord and invited his blood on their children!” It’s as if God could have used a good editor to clean up this Scriptural passage. In deference to offended Jews, Mel Gibson has removed the subtitles from his film that quoted this very verse. But the God of Scripture shows no such squeamishness, nor does He shrink from the awful result of what has been written. In Luke’s account we see Jesus being followed along the Via Dolorosa by a group of wailing women. A beaten and bloodied Jesus turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For, Behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare …”

I‘m treading water again in a pool too deep for me. I know that Jesus was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. but modern history has shown that he was referring to much more than that. And it doesn’t stop. On Ash Wednesday 2004, the day Gibson’s Passion hit the screen, the Lovingway United Pentecostal Church in Denver put up a marquee that read, “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus. Settled. 1Thess 2:14, 15.” I took my Bible and reread the Scriptures cited. Read it for yourself and you will see that indeed, such ignorant evil can quote Scripture (albeit ripped from context) to justify itself. Why? Why would God allow it to be so? I am able to sympathize with those who would cite this conundrum as the gravestone of their naïve faith in God.

But a faith that stands on rock and is not shaken by this horrible puzzle must be a faith that has looked it squarely in the eye. The Gospel accounts of the Passion of Christ bring the baggage of Christian anti-Semitism relentlessly to the surface. For that, many are calling Gibson a fool for making a serious attempt to bring it to the screen. Should he have withheld his artistic vision because he ran the risk of raising horrible questions he couldn’t answer? I think not. The robust nature of Christian faith thrives in spite of the culture, not because of it.

But for me, the anti-Semitic question must be addressed. Frankly, I have no answer for God’s motives. I’ve knocked on Heaven’s door and asked, “Why did you allow Matthew in his Gospel, and Paul in 1 Thessalonians, to use such dangerous language? Language that leaves the door open for such tragic and uncharitable interpretations?” And I get no answer. (For those who demand God to answer for Himself, I would suggest that a virulent atheism or a more benign agnosticism seems your only honest recourse.)

I have no answer. But I have found an explanation. I find it in the teachings of Jesus Himself. During the time of his ministry on earth he described his Kingdom in parables. These stories were designed to help those with ears to hear grasp an explanation for such awful mysteries. But I offer this explanation with a warning label; every parable of Jesus’ can be interpreted more than one way. You may choose to reject this view even though I am right.

Mustard Seeds and Misunderstandings Accepted
Jesus said his Kingdom was like a mustard seed. When it is planted it is smaller than the smallest of seeds. But when it is grown it becomes a tree and the birds of the air lodge in its branches. Think of the birds in this parable as the anti-Semitic Christians. They are there but they are not part of the tree, nor did they come from the seed. Stay with me. Jesus went on to say that his Kingdom was like a fish net that men cast into the sea gathering all sorts of fish. When they have drawn it to land they sit down and sort the good from the bad. Think of anti-Semites who would use Scripture to justify themselves as the bad fish, OK? They are going to be tossed away. But there’s more. Jesus said that his Kingdom was like a field in which he plants good seed but in the night his enemy comes and plants weeds in the same plot. As the crop begins to grow the weeds begin to grow as well. His disciples see the weeds and they demand that he pull them out. Jesus forbids them. He says that tearing the weeds from the soil would destroy some of the good crop that is still tender and growing in the same soil. Think of the anti-Semites as the weeds.

This is where the Christian faith rises above all other systems of thought for me: Do you see weeds in God’s garden? Who doesn’t? Wouldn’t you love to tear them out? So would I! But the Lord asks us to take a longer view. A longer-than-we-want-to-take view. He went on to say in his parable that at the end of the age a proper time will come to remove the weeds, and the bad fish, and the birds in the branches. It will be a job assigned to angels, not to us, and we must wait for them.

This is where our little passions begin. No, we are not innocent. We are not perfectly obedient. We will not carry our own sins, let alone anyone else’s. But we will share in a teeny-tiny portion of His suffering. We will be called anti-Semitic for being overwhelmed by his Sacrifice. We will be misunderstood and blamed for inciting hatred, when all we really want to do is depict God’s love. We will see the various weeds growing tall in His garden and we will scream to rip them out—and we will not be able to. Yes, this is the little crown of thorns we must wear as we wait for the angels to come and clear things up at the end of the age.

Mel Gibson’s Passion was good for me. It caused me to dig at least this deep. It overwhelmed and quieted me. It was less and more than I expected. What I lost was not worth keeping. What I gained is precious and I wouldn’t miss it.

Some will read this meditation and choose not to accept a God who will not weed His garden (and weed it now!) before another Jew is blamed for the crucifixion. What’s your alternative? Can you write us another Gospel? A better Gospel? One that will rise above the Canon of Holy Scripture? Go for it. The Gnostics took their turn. Modern editors abound, weeding away the genius of the original text. Got a big eraser? Big enough to erase the life and death of Jesus from the consciousness of the world? Good luck. The effort’s been going on 24/7 from the day Herod first took it in mind to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem. But in spite of history’s failures, you are free to join Atheist Christopher Hitchens and give it one more try. If we’ve learned anything from the Passion it’s that the price of your forgiveness has been paid in full. You can’t out-sin God’s love.

Or else … you can fall to your knees like Mel. Surrender to the Passion of the Universe. Let Gibson’s movie move you in the proper uncomfortable direction. Taste the true Passion, the greatest story ever told, and I’m convinced, the only story worth telling. When Jesus cries “It is finished,” roll the credits. What can be added? Or subtracted? You can accept it, reject it, ignore it, ridicule it. You can twist it into an excuse for racial hatred, use it for self aggrandizement. You can become a bird in God’s Tree, a bad fish in his net, or a weed in His garden, but you will find yourself in this story. You will see your profile reflected in the eyes of Mary as she holds her son’s lifeless and battered body at the foot of the cross. And someday, maybe today, maybe a long time from now, you will meet an unexpected angel, and you will be required to answer for yourself.

c. 2004

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