The Purpose of 'The Passion'
By Amelia Harper
Media Editor, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine
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
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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