Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the Executive Director and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
Dear Dan, Every year on Good Friday, a friend invites me over to watch The Passion of the Christ, and thus far I have turned her down every time. I have not seen the movie yet and worry about how watching such an intense depiction of the suffering of Our Lord might affect me emotionally. Yet I really feel compelled to watch the movie, in gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice. Should I reconsider and accept the invitation this year?
Dear friend, You're not alone in your struggle with the idea of watching Christ suffer in a manner as severe as it is depicted in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. In 2005, Gibson himself responded to concerns that it was too violent for a broad audience by creating a special edition that excluded about five minutes of the most challenging scenes.
In addition, your concern about the possibility of losing control of your emotions in front of friends is reasonable. There is nothing more devastating for Christians than the thought of Jesus’ sacrifice — and facing it visually reaches even more powerfully into our hearts. Might I suggest you watch it alone in your own home? Even though I have seen it every year since its release (we share the same tradition as your friend), it still poses a challenge to me emotionally — and I prefer to experience this with family.
Even so, I pray that I never respond in a way that is any less charged with sorrow for what he suffered for me. I never want to become complacent about the depth of love shown to me on Good Friday. This is one of the many reasons I watch the film each year.
It may also help you to consider the response of Mary to the spectacle of Christ’s profound suffering.
Mary never abandoned Jesus. Can you imagine the suffering of a mother as her child — her holy child who has given nothing but love, truth and goodness since his birth — goes through this immense suffering? Yet she never turns away. If anyone has ever had the right to turn away, Mary did.
Mary’s abiding presence as she faces the suffering of her son is one of the most mesmerizing aspects of The Passion of the Christ. I had not noticed her prominence until the third time I watched the movie, and it was truly stunning. Her strength, her perseverance, her holiness, is truly profound yet totally human. If Mary can face the suffering of her Son, I believe we can, too — with her.
St. Peter of Alcantara and St. Teresa of Avila (just two saints among many) emphasize that meditation on the suffering of Christ is essential to accurately understanding ourselves and God and thereby understanding our great debt in light of his great love. It is at the foot of the cross where we most recognize the immeasurable love that God has poured out upon us in the giving of his son.
At this time of the year we face many different portrayals of Christ’s suffering and death. Unfortunately, many modern depictions are almost worthless in conveying the severity of his suffering. They rob us of the reality of what he has done by placing something like a toga on Jesus with a surfboard on his back. In contrast, with The Passion of The Christ, we have the ability to come much closer to the reality of his suffering on our behalf. With respect to his personal life, Mel Gibson may be in the same league with Caravaggio, but he has given me the gift of knowing Christ in ways that I could have never imagined.
So, this week you have another opportunity to face the cross. Take it. With a genuine love for Christ, who suffered and died for each of us, you will make it through. And if you are like me, it will change you forever.