“See Mother, I make all things new.”
Those seven words offer the key to understanding The Passion of the Christ. It’s not about showcasing Jewish wrongdoing, or Roman maltreatment, or gratuitous violence. It’s not about depicting a nice guy with a radical message of love and forgiveness who was persecuted by those who felt threatened by it. Instead, it recounts a story of God become a man who saw how people were distorted and twisted by their own wrongdoing and who accepted as his task to literally take all that disorder upon himself and offer forgiveness and healing in return–to make all things new–and thereby open up again to everyone the true pursuit of happiness.
Jesus utters that line after falling heavily under the weight of the cross. He is almost at his worst when he turns to his mother to speak, but instead of lamenting or seeking her consoling touch he shares with her the true meaning of his agony: that he is accomplishing the reconciliation of each man with his true self, with his fellow man, and with God. Mary is torn in two watching her son suffer and yet she trusts him and seems to understand and so she never tries to prevent what happens. Jesus turns back to the cross with determination and a hint of happy acceptance, embraces it, and carries on.
As stories go, it could not be more wonderful even while being so painful. Paradoxes abound. Jesus is the hero figure who takes on evil itself and conquers it by surrendering himself to it. It is very different to Braveheart or The Lord of the Rings for victory is not won by the sword or by eluding and outfoxing. Neither is it the victory of one faction over another; the eventual death on the cross, terrible and all as it is, is not a tragedy but a great achievement as it makes possible freedom from the clutches of one’s own sins and from those of the devil (who glides freakishly in and out of the action). Throughout the movie it is loving forgiveness that appears as a quiet pulse trumping the hate and the violence that everywhere threatens to overcome it. There is also the constant reminder that Christ is not caught up unluckily in the madness, but that his very coming into the world has been to suffer the passion and he willingly accepts it as a task to be accomplished. The good news is not just for Scotsmen, or the free men of Gondor and Rohan, but for all of humanity: Christian, Jew and atheist.
That is the story, the epic that the movie depicts; to consider the truth of its claims is an entirely different matter. That is where it transforms into something way beyond a mere evocative cinema experience. To watch the movie in that way is to grasp that you are an actor in the drama–that it is also for your sins that the Christ suffers the passion, and he does so out of a love he bears for you. It is harrowing to watch the violence, but its deeply unsettling to consider the implication that you are involved, that you yourself have done wrong, that this was necessary in order to make forgiveness possible, and that it is God’s love for humanity–what Gibson calls his “obsessive love”–that drives Christ to the very end. That is where the charges of anti-Semitism quite simply miss the mark. Furthermore, the complaints of violence on the part of some may actually be a refusal to accept these presuppositions, that the problem is not with the way the movie is made but it is an ideological opposition to the moral order that is presented.
The best way to see the movie is to go with an open mind and take it at face value. It is hard to watch, but its message is ultimately uplifting, or dare I say, redemptive. The most beautiful scenes have got to be those between Jesus and Mary. They depict an intimacy and closeness the likes of which is rarely captured on screen–a union of heart and mind where each knows and loves the other to an incredible degree. Maia Morgenstern who plays Mary is extraordinary. Her facial expressions couldn’t possibly convey more depth of feeling or such a range of emotions from sheer pain to tender love to knowing acceptance. The music and the scenery powerfully add to the movie as a whole and the use of the original languages give an almost jarring sense of realism to the production.
Mel Gibson has put together a movie that is harrowing, emotive and very beautiful. It is disturbing, though I suppose he would say it is so because the truth of life is disturbing. But the final note has got to be one of wonder at the awesome sacrifice it depicts and the message that life will never be the same again–a loving God is calling us home.
Paraic Maher is a doctoral student in philosophy at Catholic University.