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COMMENTARY

The Purpose of 'The Passion'

By Amelia Harper
Media Editor, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine

CBN.com – The video release of The Passion of the Christ has brought this film home to many. Some have not seen it before, for they had heard of its violence and did not feel that they could endure witnessing such brutality on the big screen. Perhaps they are right. The story suits the big screen amazingly well, but it was not a portrayal for the faint-hearted. Some parents who did not allow their children to see the film in the theater are now faced with the decision of whether or not to allow them to view it in the safety of their home. Others who bought the film are now faced with the decision of what to do with a movie that is so powerful, yet so far removed from the scope of what we would normally term “entertainment.”

These are but a few of the questions that this film presents to us. Now, that the furor over the film has dwindled; now that the media frenzy has died, the big question remains: what can we learn from this film, which has so impacted our present culture?
When I first heard of the film, The Passion of the Christ, I was not terribly impressed. Most Hollywood presentations of the Christ in the past have ranged from the ineffective to the blasphemous. This, I feared, was more of the same.

However, reading the reviews of pastors and Bible teachers across the nation piqued my interest in this new project. I attended the press viewing with mingled anticipation and skepticism over the hype and controversy that had followed this film from its infant beginnings. As a Protestant, I was fearful of the approach that a devout Catholic would take in telling of the Gospel story. As a mother, I was concerned over the impact that this could have on my children.

As I viewed the film, I reached some conclusions on my own. The film is riveting and compelling: a true and powerful story well and bravely told. It does not flinch from the brutality and suffering (the passion) of the event. The violence is relieved only by periodic flashbacks to moments in Christ's life and ministry that illustrate His character and explain His motivation in enduring such horrible torment. Then the audience is faced once again with the unimaginable cruelty of man inflicting unbelievable pain on the innocent Son of Man.

As you watch the film, you see every stripe and feel every cruel blow. The film is gory, drenched with blood, the type of violence that one would ordinarily shun. But here the gore has a purpose. The blood drips throughout it like a grim refrain, reminding us that it was the Blood of Christ that made all the difference in the redemption. As Mary wipes the blood from the splattered courtyard, as the cold iron of nails sends the fountain of blood spouting from riven palms, as blood oozes slowly from gaping wounds, we are brought face to face with the realization that every drop of His blood had value and that every drop was shed us for us.

We sometimes forget this in our sanitized churches with their designer décor and matching pews. To us, the cross is often a symbol we wear on a chain about our necks or use to adorn our car. We sing about it without comprehending its meaning. We are so far removed from the time period that most of us have no clear idea of all that the crucifixion involved. We forget that the cross was a bloody instrument of supreme torment. We forget that sin is costly and that the payment for that sin was high.
The film is filled with one thought-provoking statement after another. Most of the words from the gospel accounts were included and others were added to enhance the drama and fill in the gaps in the narrative. When the cross is given to the Christ to carry, He clasps it almost affectionately and a fellow prisoner taunts, “You fool! Why do you embrace the cross?” My eyes filled with tears as I echoed, “Why, indeed?”

There are moments of supreme irony. As Simon of Cyrene is forced to help the failing Christ carry the burden of the cross, he shouts to the crowd, “Remember that I am an innocent man compelled to carry this for a criminal.” The utter folly of this statement seems to finally hit home as Simon bears the cross with the Christ and by the end he seems loathe to leave this man whom he had vilified shortly before. In another ironic moment, the High Priest Caiaphas commands Jesus to reveal that He is the Messiah by coming down from the cross. We know, as we watch, that such a cowardly act would actually reveal that He was not the Chosen One.

For those who know the story well, there are fleeting moments that bring home to us the fulfillment of prophecy. Christ, in the garden of Gethsemane, looks Satan in the eye as he crushes the head of a serpent. As Christ dies, the temple veil is rent asunder. The legs of the other criminals are broken, but the bones of Jesus remain whole. These subtle aspects may be lost on a viewer new to the story, but will open wonderful avenues of discussion with young people and with those who wish to know more about the way that the crucifixion fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies.

Also effective are the contrapuntal appearances of Satan and Mary skillfully woven throughout the whole. Through the eyes of Satan, we see the divinity of Christ—the Son of God locked in mortal conflict with Satan over the fate of the souls of men. We see the emotional torture He suffered as He asks the Father to let the cup pass from Him. We see His despair as He asks God why He is forsaken. We see the moment of divine victory when Satan screams in defeat as the price is finally paid.

Through the eyes of Mary we see the anguished mother, knowing that her divine Son suffers according to the will of God, but feeling still a mother’s torment at a dear child’s pain. Through her, we are reminded of His humanity: that He was once a child, that He had a family, that He was beloved. As Christ’s dead and bloody form is taken from the cross and laid in His mother’s arms, she kisses Him and turns to stare at the audience with a look of mild rebuke. It is impossible not to feel guilty, as if we also were present and had personally taken part in His torture.

There were one or two moments that may be of concern to some parents. Peter utters a curse as he denies Christ for the third time. Yet, this is true to scripture. A Jewish woman wipes the face of Christ with a cloth as He carries the cross. The moment is effective in the film and shows that many Jews were actually appalled by the actions of their fellow-countryman, but some will recognize in this instance a Catholic tradition not found in scripture. There was a moment of gratuitous violence where a raven plucks out the eye of the crucified criminal who taunts the Christ. Piled upon the heaps of necessary violence, this seemed superfluous. But the overall effect of the film was outstanding: a testament to the love of Christ and the wickedness of a world of men who did not deserve such love.

The movie will ultimately affect us all in different ways. Frankly, if I were a Catholic, I would have my faith strengthened by this film, though I would feel my focus shift towards Christ. Yet as a Protestant, I found nothing to offend my own view of Christ and much to compel me to a new vision of His suffering. However, I know that I would view such elements as the communion references differently than a Catholic would. The film insists that you make the connection between the body and blood of Christ and the elements of communion, but it allows for different interpretations of that connection.

Much has been made over the film’s potential for anti-Semitism. I did not sense this at all. If some of the villains of the film were Jewish, then the heroes were as well. If I were a Jew, I would not feel threatened by this film, but my belief system would be shaken. I would be compelled to wonder if my forefathers had not made a terrible mistake in rejecting Christ as the Messiah. I would feel forced to face that important question for myself.

An unbeliever viewing the film will have one of two reactions: he will begin to ask questions, or he will reject the truth out of hand. However, he will have to make some choice. He can never again say that he had not heard the Gospel story. I thought of these people as I heard the statement uttered by Claudia, the wife of Pontius Pilate. As Pilate speaks to his wife concerning Christ, he asks her the same question he had earlier posed to the Christ when Jesus had declared his Divinity: “What is Truth?” Claudia wisely replies, “Do you not know the Truth when you hear it? If you will not hear the Truth, no one can help you.” We must all pray that those who have ears to hear, will indeed listen to the Truth.

I was especially encouraged by the number of exact biblical quotations used. At one point Christ is seen uttering the words: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father, but by me.” I was impressed that this was included in a film made for a commercial audience. The implication that Christ himself was Truth revealed was hard to miss.

Much has been made of the success of this film. Some view its making as an affront to Hollywood and to the Jewish community. Some view its success as a vindication of Christianity. However, this debate detracts from the true lessons of the film. It will be interesting to see how this media form ultimately impacts the world and how it will stand the test of time. However, the chief danger I see is not how the lessons of this film will be remembered. The chief danger I see is that we will, somehow, forget them.


This review is adapted from an article that originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, where Amelia Harper acts as Media Editor. Amelia is also the author of a secondary literature curriculum called Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings. For more information about this book, please go to www.homescholarbooks.com.

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