Fundamentalist Christians and evangelical
Protestants have attracted much attention in recent weeks by trumpeting their hopes that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ will prove a great evangelistic tool.
What relatively few have noticed is the extent to which these groups are themselves being evangelized.
Not that The Passion of the Christ is an anti-Protestant tract — far from it. The film focuses to a great extent on what unites us, not what divides us. Its central theme — the belief that, for our salvation, the Son of God suffered, died and was buried, and rose from the dead — is shared by Catholic and non-Catholic Christians. Protestant believers witnessing The Passion of the Christ will in large measure see their own faith reflected in it and will rightly regard the film as an affirmation of their own beliefs.
That in itself is a triumph of sorts. While many Protestants recognize Catholics as fellow Christians and the Catholic Church as a Christian church, many others, particularly toward the fundamentalist end of the spectrum, continue to take a dim view of the Catholic faith. Phrases such as “an apostate church,” “a blend of Christianity and paganism” and “Babylon mystery religion” are common in these circles. One can almost hear them asking, “Can anything good come out of Catholicism?”
Yet Gibson's Catholic beliefs are so well known that, in embracing The Passion of the Christ as a profoundly Christian film, non-Catholics will have a hard time not embracing Gibson, and other Catholics with him, as brothers and sisters in Christ. Gibson might have traditionalist tendencies, but that only sharpens the conflict since it underscores that the Gospel isn't something recently discovered by progressive Catholics since Vatican II but is precisely traditional Catholic belief.
But the Catholic significance of The Passion of the Christ for the evangelical-Protestant community goes beyond mere identification of the Gospel with the Catholic tradition. As non-Catholics watch the film, they will begin to sense, alongside the gospel of grace they know and love, a sensibility at work that might at first seem strange to them.
The film's structure, following the Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Venerable Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, one of the screenplay's sources, combines two popular traditional Catholic devotions: the 14 Stations of the Cross and the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. Every mystery and every station is there, in order — including one event drawn entirely from tradition, St. Veronica wiping the Lord's face.
The film highlights Catholic Eucharistic sensibilities by presenting the Last Supper not chronologically before the Garden of Gethsemane but in flashbacks intercut with the Crucifixion itself. This juxtaposition of the Crucifixion and the Last Supper reflects the Catholic dogma that the Mass, along with the cross, is a true sacrifice, and the sacrifice of the altar and of the cross are one.
Another key scene with Eucharistic overtones occurs after the scourging at the pillar, as the two Marys, Jesus’ mother and the Magdalene, get down on their knees and begin mopping his spilled blood off the flagstones. This image is bound to leave more than a few Protestants scratching their heads. Only in light of the Catholic sensibility regarding the precious blood of Christ in the Eucharist does it begin to make sense.
Then there's the film's Marian sensibility. For many non-Catholics, Mary is such a contentious subject that the very mention of her name elicits knee-jerk defensiveness: “Mary was just an ordinary sinful woman like anyone else; God used her in a special way, but she's no different from you or me.”
The Passion of the Christ reaches beyond this defensiveness, inviting the viewer to a positive, sympathetic contemplation of Mary's unique relationship with Jesus and with his disciples. When a scene of Mary's anguish at her son staggering under the cross gives way to a flashback of Jesus falling as a toddler and Mary rushing to his side, many will grasp on an emotional level something they might resist putting into words: While Jesus alone made atonement for our sins, of all his followers Mary was in a unique way united with him in his sufferings, as her mother's heart was pierced by a sword.
Still more challenging is the way the film casts Mary as a kind of visual counterpoint to its Satan figure. In the opening scene, when Satan tempts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to abandon his mission, the devil appears both as an androgynous robed figure and also as a literal serpent, echoing an earlier temptation scene in another garden. When Jesus smashes the heel of his foot down on the serpent's head, Protestants will recognize a symbolic allusion to Genesis 3:15: “He will crush your head, and you shall strike at his heel.”
But Gibson's film also plays with the Marian interpretation of the earlier part of the verse: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” In traditional Catholic exegesis, “the woman” is ultimately Mary, and her “seed” is Christ himself. The “enmity” between Satan and “the woman” signifies nothing less than a total opposition of wills untainted by the slightest fault or sin on Mary's part, and thus points to her Immaculate Conception.
The Passion of the Christ evokes in an imaginative and poetic way this complete opposition between Mary and Satan in a number of scenes. One occurs as Jesus carries his cross through the midst of the crowd, with Mary anxiously following him on one side and the Satan figure on the other side, mirroring and thus opposing her. Another takes place during the scourging at the pillar, as the satanic figure manifests itself in a vision that seems a deliberate parody of images of the Madonna.
There's also the way the film presents Jesus’ last words to his mother and the beloved disciple from the cross — ”Woman, behold your son … Son, behold … your mother” — with that meaningful pause before the last two words. Add to this the way Peter early on refers to Mary as “Mother,” and it's clear The Passion of the Christ holds up Mary as a mother figure to all of Jesus’ disciples.
All across the Bible Belt, Protestant churches are challenging their members to take their “unchurched” friends to see The Passion of the Christ. Perhaps Catholics should make a point of going with their Protestant friends — and then pointing out what their friends aren't hearing about the film in their own churches.
Steven D. Greydanus, editor and chief critic of Decentfilms.com, writes from Bloomfield, New Jersey.