Culture of Life
The Register’s Guide to the Passion
BY Jim Cosgrove
April 11-17, 2004 Issue | Posted 4/11/04 at 1:00 PM
This week we conclude our look at the teachings of the Church and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
The Council of Trent recommended meditation on the Passion and said it sums up the Gospel:
“In the Passion alone we have the most illustrious example of the exercise of every virtue. For he so displayed patience, humility, exalted charity, meekness, obedience and unshaken firmness of soul not only in suffering for justice's sake but also in meeting death, that we may truly say on the day of his Passion alone, our Savior offered, in his own Person, a living exemplification of all the moral precepts inculcated during the entire time of his public ministry.”
We hope these reflections can help readers better use the movie to deepen their spiritual lives.
Humility and Obedience
“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
— Philippians 2:5-11
“‘For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous.’ By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who ‘makes himself an offering for sin’ when ‘he bore the sin of many’ and who ‘shall make many to be accounted righteous,’ for ‘he shall bear their iniquities.’ Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 615
The movie shows how Christ's sacrifice, because of his humility and obedience, led to his glory at the Resurrection.
• He stands up at the pillar and says, “My heart is ready, Father.” Even as he is being scourged, he is obedient to the Father.
• Christ's obedience even entails his following the rules of church and state — of Caiaphas and Pilate.
• In the flashback to the woman caught in adultery, we again remember Christ's obedience. He doesn't say, “Don't stone her — don't follow the law.” He says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
• The movie also shows Christ's great humility. Throughout, he is in chains, submitting himself to abuse at the hands of people he created.
• The movie's flashbacks draw attention to Christ's humility, also: He is laboring to build a table for “a rich man” even though Christ is King of the universe. He washes the disciples' feet. He associates himself with the woman caught in adultery, not the religious leaders.
• Peter's failure is a failure of his humility. When he thought it would make him look good, his pride proclaimed, “I will follow you, even to death.” But when he fears it will make him look bad, he won't even acknowledge that he knows him.
• Christ is a king, but the only crown he wears is a crown of thorns. The soldiers call him “wormy king” and “king of worms.” It's a reference to Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ is humiliated in the movie — abandoned by his friends, jeered by soldiers, with only a few willing to help or acknowledge him.
• In the end, we see where this humility and obedience end — in the Resurrection, as he stands up, his flesh restored except for the holes in his hands and feet, and his look determined.
Love and Sacrifice
“By embracing in his human heart the Father's love for men, Jesus ‘loved them to the end,’ for ‘greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ In suffering and death his humanity became the free and perfect instrument of his divine love that desires the salvation of men. Indeed, out of love for his Father and for men, whom the Father wants to save, Jesus freely accepted his passion and death: ‘No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.’ Hence the sovereign freedom of God's Son as he went out to his death.”
— Catechism, No. 609
Suffering is evil in itself. It is only when it is transformed by love that it becomes something positive: sacrifice.
• The movie wants us above all to focus on Christ's love. Each of the flashbacks is a lesson in love: His commandment to love as he has and to even love enemies, his washing of the feet of the apostles, his Eucharistic offering, his mercy for the woman caught in adultery, even his loving relationship with his mother.
• In the film (and in Catholic teaching) Christ's interior sacrifice is deeper than his physical. The movie shows his suffering beginning before the violence, when he accepts the cup in the garden. And his memorable words of complaint about his suffering have to do with the mental suffering only — when, in the end, he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The interior suffering comes from his rejection by the people he loves (including each of us) and by the abyss he felt between himself and the Father because of sin.
• Christ literally embraces his cross, the instrument of our deliverance from sin. The other man being crucified can't understand this response to suffering. Only love makes it understandable.
• The characters of the Passion are remembered by the way they responded to suffering. Judas is remembered as Christ's betrayer and not for anything else he did in his life. We remember Pilate's capitulation every time we say the Creed — the other acts of his life are lost to history. Peter is remembered as the man who overcame his failure from that day. The loving response of Simon and Veronica are depicted in every Roman Catholic Church. And, above all, Christ is depicted most often in the crucifix, the memento of his love.
• “When will you choose to be delivered from this?” Mary asks in the movie. The cross is his answer. He won't choose to be delivered until long after he's dead. His love is “to the end.”
• “Behold, I am making all things new!” It is through his loving sacrifice that Christ makes all things new. The film suggests that it's the same in our lives. Happiness isn't the absence of suffering, it's the presence of love. This alone can make suffering a transforming experience.
Take Up Your Cross
“The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the ‘one mediator between God and men.’ But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, ‘the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery’ is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to take up [their] cross and follow [him],’ for ‘Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in his steps.’ In fact, Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering. Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.”
— Catechism, No. 618
First week: Mary
Second week: Sin
Third week: Eucharist
Final week: Sacrifice
We are “Easter people,” but only because we follow Christ's command to take up our own cross each day. In the movie, several characters show the different possible responses to suffering. The question the movie asks is: What will yours be?
• Peter tries to stay loyal to Christ while rejecting suffering. He cuts off the ear of the soldier. If he had stayed up and prayed with Christ, as he was asked, he might have understood that this suffering is part of a higher plan.
• Judas is disloyal to Christ but accepts suffering. Without Christ, all of his penance — giving the money back and his mental anguish — become torments that gain him nothing. He becomes a suicide — the opposite of a martyr.
• Pilate foresees that he will suffer if he does the right thing regarding Christ. So he ends up multiplying Christ's suffering to prevent his own.
• Simon recoils from Christ's suffering but is forced to carry the cross. But then, by communing with Christ, he learns to embrace the cross and participate in Christ's sacrifice.
• Veronica sees Christ's suffering and tries to alleviate it. She turns suffering into an occasion of charity.
• Mary Magdalene accompanies Christ on the way of the cross, accepting his suffering for her sins.
• Mary stays close to Christ throughout the passion and shares his suffering — as Simeon had foretold she would when he told her “a sword will pierce your soul, too.”
• John, who is the author of the Gospel account that the movie is mainly taken from, follows Christ and is present in the flashbacks where Christ explains that he will suffer out of love. He will later pen the words, “God is love.”
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