Understanding the Catholic Meaning of The Passion of the Christ
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Portions of this article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.
By Steven D. Greydanus
The main action in The Passion of the Christ consists of a man being horrifically beaten, mutilated, tortured, impaled, and finally executed. The film is grueling to watch — so much so that some critics have called it offensive, even sadistic, claiming that it fetishizes violence. Pointing to similar cruelties in Gibson’s earlier films, such as the brutal execution of William Wallace in Braveheart, critics allege that the film reflects an unhealthy fascination with gore and brutality on Gibson’s part.
Other critics, including some Christians, have gone still further, charging not only Gibson but certain forms of Christian piety with a morbid obsession with blood and death. For example, writing before the film’s release in 2003, then-Evangelical writer Michael Coren commented:
It’s certainly a relief to see an attempt at the grotesque reality of violent death rather than the diluted depictions of some film portrayals. But, again, with all due respect to Catholicism, there has in the past and to an extent still is a virtual blood cult within it. The medieval church was obsessed with gore, and even today in southern Europe we see quite repugnant fetishes with sacred blood, holy blood, miracle-giving blood. If it’s European medievalism we’re seeing rather than death-dry, God-drenched ancient Judea, we could be in trouble. (National Post, August 21, 2003)
There is something almost refreshing about encountering an objector so candid about his cultural and religious prejudices (though Coren, who was raised Catholic and since writing those words has returned to the Catholic Church, may not be the most representative example).
Although countless non-Catholic Christians have responded with great enthusiasm to The Passion of the Christ, much (not all) of the anti-Passion backlash is rooted in prejudice against a form of piety that is foreign to the objectors. Coren’s expression of anti-Catholic, anti-European, anti-medieval bias and corresponding Evangelical fastidiousness speaks candidly for many who may not be so candid themselves.
But it doesn’t stop with backlash within the believing world. Nor is Gibson’s film the first work of Christian art to be accused of excessive morbidity. Similar charges could be found against such devotional exercises as the way of the cross (or stations of the cross) and the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, which involve prolonged contemplation of the specifics of Christ’s suffering and death. Even the observance of Good Friday, or the display of a simple crucifix, has been viewed with suspicion and hostility by some both inside and outside the faith.
In its most extreme form, the charge of morbidity has been laid at the feet of the Christian faith itself. Christianity’s harshest critics denounce it as "a religion of death." Clearly, at some point objections of this sort must be regarded as a case in point of what the scriptures call the "scandal" of the cross. It is the cross itself, the very suffering and dying of God made man, and the way Christians respond to this event in their faith and devotion, that is behind much (though again not all) of the religious and anti-religious controversy over the brutality of this particular film.
None of this is to say that there are no valid criticisms or concerns worth raising in connection with The Passion. There are, for example in connection with some unfortunate decisions in the portrayal of Jesus’ Jewish opponents — though even these have been exaggerated and distorted.
But clearly some of the accusations thrown at the film might as well be directed against Christian belief and practice as well. "Watching it is an act of self-flagellation," fumes one film critic. Well, what if it is? Mortification of the flesh has a long and venerable history in Christian spirituality.
Divine Mercy in The Passion
How can critics, even some Christians, look at The Passion of the Christ and see only senseless brutality rather than redemptive meaning? In part, it may be because some of them literally don’t know what they’re looking at.
Take a scene that is one of the film’s most inspired yet least observed moments, the centurion piercing the dead Christ’s side with a lance, releasing a flow of blood and water. In other depictions, the blood and water are often shown trickling or oozing down his side. Gibson, though, depicts a spray of blood and water gushing from Christ’s side and showering down on the startled centurion.
To some viewers, this shot may have looked like no more than a burst of gratuitous gore, just another moment of maximized violence drama from a violence-obsessed director. That the image was not Gibson’s invention — it comes from one of his inspirational sources, the visionary writings of Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich — may not much mend matters, since many critics of Gibson’s film are as suspicious of traditional Catholic piety and of Anne Catherine Emmerich in particular as of Gibson, and in any case may still be unable to see spiritual meaning in what seems a gratuitously gory image.
To understand the real meaning of the image, it is useful to compare it with a well-known image in Catholic devotional iconography, the well-known Divine Mercy image, based on the visions of St. Faustina Helena Kowalska, which depicts Christ with rays of red and white light emanating from his side. Here is the explanation of the red and white rays from Faustina’s own account of Christ’s words in the vision:
The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls. These two rays issued forth from the depths of My tender mercy when My agonized Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross… Happy is the one who will dwell in their shelter, for the just hand of God shall not lay hold of him.
Gibson’s point in depicting the Roman soldier (who is identified with the chastened centurion traditionally called Longinus who declared Jesus to be Son of God and whose subsequent conversion is the subject of the film The Robe) showered in the blood and water from Christ’s side is the same as St. Faustina’s in saying "Happy is the one who will dwell in the shelter" of the red and white rays that represent that same blood and water.
The point here is not that one necessarily has to be familiar with Catholic devotional art in order to grasp the heart of the meaning of The Passion of the Christ. Viewers who have appreciated the film include non-Catholics, non-Christians, non-religious viewers, even agnostics and atheists.
However, critics who condemn the film without recognizing its basis in Western sacred art and spiritual tradition are condemning what they don’t understand. Criticisms about the film’s general lack of well-developed characterizations and exaggerated stereotypes, for example, miss the point as much as those that object to the violence.
Gibson’s archetypal characterizations, from the senselessly brutal laughter of the almost orc-like centurions to the implacable hostility of the Jewish elders, are in the same tradition as the archetypal and grotesque figures in the sometimes graphically violent sacred art of, for example, Matthias Grünewald, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (The PBS documentary The Face [Jesus in Art], partly narrated by Gibson, includes a segment on the historic portrayal of Christ’s sufferings that may prove enlightening to critics who missed the intervening 2000 years between the gospel accounts and The Passion of the Christ.)
To complain about the lack of character development and the violent imagery in The Passion is to miss the reality that nuanced characterization is not always the point in all styles of art — indeed, in some styles it can be a distraction — and that blood and gore in art was not invented by Hollywood action movies.
The Passion in perspective
To understand the brutality of Gibson’s Passion within the film’s own redemptive context, one must begin a full hour before the first blow at the pillar falls, in the opening scene in the garden of Gethsemane.
As imagined here, Jesus’ agony in the garden harkens back to two earlier events in salvation history: the temptation in the wilderness, and the garden of Eden. The agony in the garden and the temptation in the wilderness are the two ordeals at either end of Christ’s public ministry in which he was ministered to by angels, but Gibson’s film, like other recent dramatizations (e.g., The Miracle Maker), omits the angels, instead depicting Satan returning to tempt Jesus, testing him on the eve of his passion just as he did at the outset of his public ministry.
This opening image of Satan there in the garden, tempting Jesus, the second Adam, recalls another scene from the opening chapters of the scriptures, the temptation of the first Adam in another garden, Eden. Gibson even uses a literal serpent, strengthening the Genesis 3 resonance — and also, perhaps, alluding to what is probably the only other film to use a literal serpent in depicting Christ being tempted, namely, The Last Temptation of Christ.
It may seem strange to think of the traditionalist Gibson alluding to Scorsese’s notoriously controversial film, the last major Jesus film before The Passion of the Christ. However, The Passion does seem to be consciously aware of the earlier film. (Jeffrey Overstreet of ChristianityToday.com, among others, has noted that the soundtrack is overtly reminiscent of Last Temptation’s Peter Gabriel score.)
If Gibson did consciously re-use the serpent image, it wasn’t as an homage to Scorsese’s film, but as a rebuttal of it. The most striking thing about the two serpent scenes is how they highlight two utterly antithetical ideas of what it meant for Jesus to be tempted. In sharp contrast to Last Temptation, where the confrontation between Jesus and the serpent is inconclusive, The Passion brings the temptation to a decisive end with Jesus quite literally putting his foot down in an unmistakable allusion of Genesis 3:15, a verse sometimes called the "protoevangelion" or "first Gospel": "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he will crush your head, and you shall strike at his heel."
Establishing redemptive meaning
The temptation scene also serves to establish the meaning, the purpose and goal, of everything that follows. Ironically, just as the temptations in the wilderness implicitly bear witness to Christ’s divinity ("If you are the Son of God…"), so here it’s the tempter’s insinuations that indicate the nature of Jesus’ mission: "Do you think you can bear the weight of the world’s sins? They aren’t worth this. The burden is too great. No man can bear it."
These establishing lines, delivered in the opening scene, provide key context for the rest of the film. First, Jesus means to take upon himself the weight or burden of our sins. Second, this will prove to be a hideous ordeal. Third, he accepts this ordeal out of love for us — that is, he rejects the tempter’s suggestion that mankind is "not worth this"; to him, manifestly, we are. This is the context in which every subsequent blow, every laceration, every fall of the hammer must be seen.
Another early scene recalls the scandalous and offensive aspects of Jesus’ public ministry, providing necessary context for his persecution by the Jewish leaders. In the nighttime trial before the Sanhedrin or Jewish council, witnesses come forward to testify against him, essentially offering a synopsis of all that was controversial in Jesus’ preaching and life: his claims to be able to forgive sins; his baffling words about rebuilding the temple after three days; the accusation that he performed exorcisms by diabolical means; his shocking teaching about the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood; and of course his claim to be both the Messiah and the Son of God, leading the high priest Caiaphas to accuse him of blasphemy.
"Enmity between you and the woman"
The significance of Genesis 3:15 for The Passion of the Christ doesn’t end with the opening scene. It can also be seen, less strikingly but more pervasively, in the film’s approach to Mary the mother of Jesus.
In traditional Christian exegesis, "the woman" and her "seed" have been interpreted as ultimately referring to Mary and Jesus; and the "enmity" established by God between the woman and the serpent has been understood to signify a total opposition of wills. Mary’s "enmity" with Satan, Catholic dogma teaches, is uncompromised by any stain of sin, and is rooted in God’s grace to her in her Immaculate Conception.
This complete opposition of Mary and Satan is evoked in an imaginative and poetic way in The Passion of the Christ in a number of scenes. One such moment occurs as Jesus carries his cross through the midst of the crowd, with Mary anxiously following him on one side and the tempter on the other side, mirroring and thus opposing her. Another takes place during the scourging at the pillar, as Satan manifests himself in a vision that amounts to a hideous parody of images of the Madonna and child.
For Gibson, Mary and Satan are antithetical, opposed images, reflecting the total opposition of wills, the "enmity" that exists between the Immaculate Conception and the enemy of mankind.
Catholic meaning, Protestant viewers
These Marian themes, along with the Divine Mercy allusion in the piercing of Christ’s side, are just two aspects of a strongly Catholic spirituality that pervades the film. In this connection, one of the most interesting aspects of the film’s reception is how eagerly it has been embraced by non-Catholic Christians who in many cases might otherwise be disposed to respond to such Catholic ideas and sensibilities with suspicion or hostility.
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 Christians, not what divides us. Its central theme — the belief that the Son of God for our salvation suffered and was crucified, died and was buried, and rose from the dead — is shared by Catholic and non-Catholic Christians. Protestant believers witnessing the film will in large measure see their own faith reflected in it, and will rightly regard the film as an affirmation of their own beliefs.
This in itself has notable ecumenical significance. 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 Catholics and Catholicism. Phrases like "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 and star Jim Caviezel’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 its director and star, and other Catholics with them, as brethren in Christ. Gibson’s traditionalist tendencies only sharpen 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 community goes beyond mere identification of the Gospel with the Catholic tradition. As non-Catholics watch the film, they will begin to sense, permeating the gospel of grace they know and love, a sensibility at work that may at first seem strange to them.
Tradition and eucharistic imagery
The film’s structure, following the Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ by Venerable Sr. 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 flashback 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.
More Marian themes
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."
Besides the Marian themes mentioned above, The Passion’s overall approach to Mary helps to reach 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 may resist putting into words: that 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.
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 that The Passion holds up Mary as a mother figure to all Jesus’ disciples.
A call to conversion
The Passion of the Christ has been widely hailed by non-Catholic Christians as an evangelistic tool. In light of the film’s Catholic themes, there might be said to be a sense in which Evangelicals and Fundamentalists themselves are also among those being evangelized.
To the extent that the film is a call to conversion, though, it is a call to everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic, believer and nonbeliever. To those who believe, Catholic or otherwise, The Passion of the Christ invites us to a deeper commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ, and a deeper participation in the paschal mystery of his passion, death, and resurrection.