First week: Mary

Last week: Sin

Easter Week: Sacrifice

Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ is the fruit of more than a decade of meditation on the teachings of Scripture and Tradition about the day Christ gave his life. The Register continues its look at some of the points of theology and spirituality that are raised in the movie.

The Old Covenant

“At all times and in every race, anyone who fears God and does what is right has been acceptable to him. He has, however, willed to make men holy and save them, not as individuals without any bond or link between them but rather to make them into a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness. He therefore chose the Israelite race to be his own people and established a covenant with it. He gradually instructed this people. … All these things, however, happened as a preparation for and figure of that new and perfect covenant that was to be ratified in Christ, the New Covenant in his blood; he called together a race made up of Jews and Gentiles that would be one, not according to the flesh, but in the Spirit.”

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 781

The movie shows that Christ's sacrifice is a fulfillment of the covenants God has made with his people in the Old Testament.

• The movie opens by quoting Isaiah's prophecy about the suffering servant and the liberation of Israel. The Gospels associate Christ with the suffering servant.

• In the first scene, Christ is deep in prayer to the Father, quoting the Psalms. It recalls the Old Testament scene when Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his only son at God's command.

• Mary's first words in the movie are, “Why is this night like no other?” This question is asked during the Passover supper each year. The answer? Because tonight is the night of the Passover. The Lamb of God is being sacrificed. His people will be saved again by the blood of the Lamb.

• The first charge laid against Jesus is that he says he will destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. The Temple houses the Ten Commandments given to Moses, a sign of God's covenant with Israel. It is destroyed in the movie, by the earthquake — and then “rebuilt” in three days insofar as Christ, the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, rises from the dead.

• Another charge brought against Christ is that he has called himself the “bread of life” and that he said, “He who does not eat my flesh and drink my blood will have no life in him.” The charge is true — he did say that. In doing so, Christ is associating himself with the manna in the desert, another covenant sign.

• Caiaphas says, “Let his blood be on us and on our children” — words that are left untranslated in the theatrical release of the movie. John, the author of the Gospel that quotes him, would have understood these words to be an ironic echo of the story of Moses sprinkling the people of Israel with blood to cleanse them.

• On Calvary, there are two thieves crucified with Christ. The soldiers break their legs to hasten their death. But Christ's bones are left unbroken. John writes that this unintentionally fulfills the Passover rule: The Lamb of God is a firstborn unblemished lamb whose bones are left unbroken.

The New Covenant

“After agreeing to baptize him along with the sinners, John the Baptist looked at Jesus and pointed him out as the ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ By doing so, he reveals that Jesus is at the same time the Suffering Servant who silently allows himself to be led to the slaughter and who bears the sin of the multitudes, and also the Paschal Lamb, the symbol of Israel's redemption at the first Passover. Christ's whole life expresses his mission: ‘to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

— Catechism, No. 609

In the logic of the movie (and of the Gospel) Christ isn't only fulfilling the Old Testament covenant but is establishing a new covenant that is perpetuated through the sacraments.

• He is the new Moses. The flashbacks that show Jesus teaching dwell on the fact that he is bringing a new teaching, based on love. “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.”

• He is the new Lamb of God. One of the charges flung at Jesus in the movie in his nighttime trial is: “He's said if we don't eat his flesh and drink his blood, we won't inherit eternal life.” These are indeed words he said, and that many of his followers rejected, in the sixth chapter of John. He shows that he meant them literally — but not in an offensive way — when he institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper by lifting the bread and saying, “This is my Body.”

• Jesus is even the new Abraham. Just as Abraham's sons numbered as the stars, and he's the patriarch of Israel, Christ in the movie says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He's the “patriarch” of the New Covenant race.

• Judas rejects the New Covenant. He is shown colluding with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus during, or immediately after, the Last Supper. He likes Jesus in the movie. But he sides with the “Old Covenant” against the New Covenant. In the Gospel of John, Judas’ betrayal is even more closely tied to his rejection of the Eucharist. His first rejection of Christ comes when Jesus insists, “If you don't eat my flesh and drink my blood, you won't inherit eternal life.”

• Christ's side poured out blood and water in a great cascade. The event is striking in the Gospel of John — he insists on its truth in a special way — and it is certainly memorable in the movie. The waters of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist are the two primary signs of the New Covenant.

Liturgy of the Passion

“Jesus gave the supreme expression of his free offering of himself at the meal shared with the Twelve Apostles ‘on the night he was betrayed.’ On the eve of his passion, while still free, Jesus transformed this Last Supper with the apostles into the memorial of his voluntary offering to the Father for the salvation of men: ‘This is my body, which is given for you.’ ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”

— Catechism, No. 610

Christ shed his blood once only — but it was once for all time. We have access to the sacrifice of the New Covenant to this day. Gibson portrays Christ's sacrifice in the movie in a way that consciously invokes the Mass.

• The story begins right after the institution of the Eucharist — and is in fact a continuation of it. He spoke of the blood “that will be given up for you” and then proceeded to offer himself for sins.

• Throughout the movie, the Latin and Aramaic are translated into plain English subtitles. But in the garden, Christ prays, “Let this chalice pass from me.” Not “cup” — chalice. The film thus identifies the “cup” of sacrifice with the Eucharistic cups used in Mass. (In the movie, he uses a clay dish, not a chalice, at the Last Supper).

• That night, Christ instituted the priesthood at the same time he instituted the Eucharist when he asked his apostles to “do this in memory of me.”

• Nearly all the clothes in the movie are tan, brown or black — except Veronica's veil and the folded towels used by Mary and Mary Magdalene to mop up the Precious Blood. These are white like liturgical cloths, like the purificators used at every Mass.

• Pilate's capitulation in Jesus’ crucifixion is also almost liturgical — when he washes his hands, Jesus remembers his own ritual hand-washing before the offering of his body at the Last Supper.

• The movie cuts back and forth between the Crucifixion and the Last Supper. When Christ is stripped, the film recalls the bread being unwrapped and presented. As the crucifix is raised, it recalls the host being elevated. The movie suggests the Mass is the Passion, re-presented. In every Mass, we see the Passion through a window.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.