This Week: SIN
We continue to look at Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and the window it provides to the teachings of the Church.
Last week: Mary Holy Week: Eucharist Easter Week: Sacrifice
The Cosmic Battle
“A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon. … [T]he dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. … Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. … The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it. … When the dragon saw that it had been thrown down to the earth, it pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. … Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God's commandments and bear witness to Jesus.”
- Revelation 12:1-5, 7, 9, 13, 17
“Victory over the ‘prince of this world’ was won once for all at the hour when Jesus freely gave himself up to death to give us his life. This is the judgment of this world, and the prince of this world is ‘cast out.’ ‘He pursued the woman’ but had no hold on her: the new Eve, ‘full of grace’ of the Holy Spirit, is preserved from sin and the corruption of death (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God, Mary, ever virgin). ‘Then the dragon was angry with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her off-spring.’ Therefore the Spirit and the Church pray: ‘Come, Lord Jesus,’ since his coming will deliver us from the evil one.”
- Catechism of the Catholic
Church, No. 2853
These remarkable quotes from the New Testament and the Catechism speak of the cosmic confrontation between good and evil, between love and sin.
This is the “big picture” of the story of The Passion of the Christ: Satan's obsessive hatred of the sinless Mary, his desire to destroy the Christians who are her children and his defeat by Jesus, who is love incarnate.
•Satan, the father of lies, wins his victims over by mixing truth into what he says. Satan says, “No one man can bear man's sins. No one. Ever. No. Never.” He always points to the impossibility of Christianity. What he fails to mention is that Christ makes the impossible possible. n Satan shares his sin with others. Jesus' mental suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane as the movie opens comes as he takes our sins on himself. All the guilt of all the sinners of all time was his to bear at that moment — theologians say his mental suffering in the garden is worse than the physical suffering that followed it. n Satan is practically smiling throughout the movie. This is the hour of his triumph. But after his shriek of pain, he's gone at the end. We've entered the Marian age, the age of Satan's defeat. n Satan is the counterpart to Mary in the film. He's the naysayer, she's the docile one who accepts. He's the androgynous one, she's the Virgin Mother. He sows destruction and confusion, she brings strength and faith. He is obsessed with her, mockingly imitating the Madonna. She's focused on her Son and sees Satan only once, fleetingly. He's vanquished at the end, alone. She is honored at the end and made Mother of the Church. n Jesus says next to nothing to his accusers. The few things he says are the things that will condemn him. He doesn't claim that he's innocent because he's not innocent. He is the Messiah, as accused. He is a king, as accused. And — since he has taken our sin on himself — he does “deserve” crucifixion.
• It seems that Christ's prayer at the beginning of the movie, “Hear me, Father. Rise up. Defend me,” is ignored by the Father. But at the film's end, we see that it is answered superlatively: Satan is vanquished, screaming in his own “agony in the desert.”
The Humiliation of Judas
“This dramatic situation of ‘the whole world [that] is in the power of the evil one’ makes man's life a battle:
“The whole of man's history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God's grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity.”
- Catechism, No. 409
This cosmic battle of love vs. sin is played out in a personal way in the lives of individuals in the movie. Judas in the movie is a lesson in how sin fails those who choose it.
•Gibson wanted Satan to be the personification of sin in the movie. He's attractive and scary at the same time, like sin. We've been burned by sin in the past, yet we return to it.
• How different Satan is from Jesus. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples and calls them friends. Satan doesn't want friends, he wants dupes. He humiliates those who partner with him, then abandons them.
• We know from Scripture, and we sense in the movie, that Judas partnered with Satan in his crime. Then Satan took away his sanity and hounded him to his death.
• In the film, Judas did it for money — for the personal gain he expected. But he had to crawl and pick up his money. We sin out of pride, hoping to build ourselves up, but we end up humiliating ourselves.
• Judas turns in on himself, and everything becomes ghastly. Even the innocence of children seems to condemn him. He flees the company of others to a lonely place and then flees life itself in his suicide.
Pilate: The Stages of Sin
“Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations that cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil. Thus sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself, but it cannot destroy the moral sense at its root.”
- Catechism, No. 1865
The movie shows the steps Pilate goes through after he is presented with the reasons and opportunites to free Christ, to the moment he consents to Christ's cruficixion.
•First, Pilate over-rationalizes his action. He should simply realize you can't condemn an innocent man and be done. But when he balances the consequences of right and wrong as if they were equal options, he has already taken the first step to sinning.
• Second, Pilate hides from his responsibility. He sends Christ off to be tried by Herod. When that doesn't work, he offers Barabbas. In both cases, he tries to leave his decision to sin in someone else's hands. When we sin we often say, “I wouldn't do this if only he/she/they acted differently.” But we can't escape our personal responsibility.
• Next, Pilate tries a lesser form of the sin, thinking it's somehow less sinful. He tries a scourging. He thinks a milder sin will be a buffer against the more serious sin. He forgets that small sins lead to greater sins.
• Fourth, Pilate thinks words can cover for his actions. He tells the crowd he finds no fault in Christ, washes his hands and then sends Christ off to be crucified. How often do we “innocently” sin, telling ourselves we're not really doing what we're doing? n Fifth, Pilate suffers the consequence of his sin. Nothing he hoped to accomplish was accomplished. Killing Christ didn't improve his situation; instead it has come to define who he was in the minds of all who hear about him.
Freedom and Repentance
“Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's Kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.”
- Catechism of the Catholic
Church, No. 1861
The movie tells the story of how man's freedom is real. He can sin, or he can stop sinning, repent and avoid the full consequence of his sin.
•Judas and Peter both have the opportunity to look into Jesus' eyes after their betrayals. This encounter with Christ leads to Peter's repentance. Judas flees deeper into confusion and inner conflict.
• Judas tries to reverse his sin just by giving the money back. That's not enough. Like the good thief and like Peter, he has to bring his sin to Christ or the Church.
• The bad thief rebels, even in the end, because human nature tends to stick to its ways. But the good thief repents because he 1) confesses his guilt, 2) accepts that he must do penance and 3) asks Christ for forgiveness. As a result he's the only person directly promised heaven by Christ in the movie.
• Gibson has said he “used the wounds of Christ to heal mine.” So did Mary Magdalene in the movie — directly. Christ spared her life when she was stoned. As she mops up his blood after the scourging, she seems to realize that, when they stoned Christ, he was accepting in himself the punishment that he spared her from.
- March 28-April 3, 2004