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What Mel Missed

[Beliefnet, September 24, 2003]

Most of us have yet to see Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion,’ but we’ve gained one sure impression: it’s bloody. ‘I wanted to bring you there,’ Gibson told Peter J. Boyer in September 15’s New Yorker magazine. ‘I wanted to be true to the Gospels. That has never been done before.’

This goal means showing us what real scourging and crucifixion would look like. ‘I didn’t want to see Jesus looking really pretty,’ Gibson goes on. ‘I wanted to mess up one of his eyes, destroy it.’

It’s a mark of our age that we don’t believe something is realistic unless it is brutal. But there’s another factor to consider. When the four evangelists were writing their own accounts of the Passion, they didn’t take Gibson’s approach. None of them depict Jesus with a destroyed eye. In fact, the descriptions of Jesus’ beating and crucifixion are as minimal as the writers can make them.

“Having scourged Jesus, Pilate delivered him to be crucified,” the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) agree. “When they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him.”

Little more than a dozen verses later he is dead. The evangelists did not linger over his suffering in order to stir our empathy. The account of physical action is so brisk that, back when I was in seminary, I asked one of my professors why we presume Jesus was nailed to the Cross, rather than bound with ropes. He supposed it was because Paul later refers to redemption through Christ’s blood. (We’d both forgotten that “Doubting Thomas” touches the marks of the nails after Jesus’ Resurrection.)

If Mel Gibson had allotted his time the way the evangelists do, the majority of his film would have been about the swirl of people around Jesus in his last days, how they interact with him and what they do because of him. The scourging and crucifixion would have passed in a flash.

Why would the earliest Christians have handled these events so discreetly? Not because the events were thought unimportant; the whole Gospel story builds toward them. Not because the writers were squeamish, or because they were ashamed. St. Paul speaks boldly about Jesus’ saving blood and proclaims that he will boast in the Cross.

But in the earliest Christian writings we see a different understanding of the meaning of the Cross, one which, shockingly, didn’t think it was important for us to identify with Jesus’ suffering. For contemporary Christians it’s hard to imagine such a thing. The extremity of Jesus’ sacrifice has been the wellspring of Christian art and devotion for centuries. It has produced great treasures, from late Renaissance paintings of the Crucifixion, to the meditations of Dame Julian of Norwich, to Bach’s glorious setting of ‘O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.’ Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ arrives as the newest entrant in a very old tradition.

A funny thing happens, however, if we press further back in time. Before the middle ages, depictions of the Crucifixion show very little blood. Though the event itself was no doubt horrific, artists preferred to render it with restraint (like the Gospels, but unlike Gibson). The visual elements in an ancient icon of the Crucifixion are arranged symmetrically, harmoniously, and the viewer is placed at a respectful distance. The depiction is not without drama: Mary and the disciple John, at the foot of the Cross, reel in grief. But Jesus does not reveal any sense of torment. He is serene, almost regal.

What changed? In the 11th century, a theory emerged that shifted the common understanding of the Cross. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, proposed that our sins constituted a offense to God’s honor that could not be simply erased, not without unbalancing justice. This debt was too immense for any human to pay, and only Jesus’ death could be an adequate sacrifice. Protestant Reformers retained the same theory substantially intact, but during the Enlightenment some theologians proposed instead that Jesus’ suffering is meant to unite us in grateful love toward the Father, rather than pay a debt.

In both cases, Jesus as the God-Man takes on the sin of the world, bears its crushing weight, and accomplishes divine reconciliation. The movement in this drama is from earth to heaven, and the Cross means ‘suffering.’

Yet for the first millennium, and continuing in Eastern Christianity today, the Cross means ‘victory.’ In this idea of the atonement, God in Christ effects a rescue mission. Humans are being held captive by Death, due to their voluntary involvement in sin, and are helpless to free themselves. In a majestic sweep of events, Jesus takes on human life in order to die, invade hell, and set the captives free.

The focus is much broader than the Crucifixion alone. The movement is from heaven to earth, the reverse of the later pattern. Paul, writing about 60 AD, describes this divine descent in the words of the earliest existing Christian hymn:

Who, though he was in the form of God,

Did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself to death,

Even death on a Cross. (Phil 2:6-8)

Early Christians understood the Cross to be the way that Jesus broke into the realm of Death. Suffering itself is not the point.

How then could Jesus be a ransom, sacrifice, or offering? Early Christians understood such terms to mean that it cost Jesus his life to rescue us. It was a sacrifice to the Father, as a soldier might offer a superlative act of courage to his beloved general. It was the price of entry into the realm of Death. It cost Jesus his life’s blood to enter Hades and save us, but it wasn’t a payment to anybody. Early Christians said that this rescue was like God’s action in saving the Children of Israel in the Red Sea, rescuing them from Pharaoh. God “ransomed” and “redeemed” his children, without paying anything, either to Pharaoh or himself. 

This helps us see why those early Christians did not linger over the details of his suffering. It would be as odd as welcoming home a wounded soldier, and instead of focusing on the victory he won, dwelling on the exact moment the bayonet pierced his stomach, how it felt and what it looked like. A human soldier might well feel annoyed with such attention to his weakness rather than his strength. He would feel that it better preserved his dignity for visitors to avert their eyes from such details, and recount that part of the story as scantly as possible to focus instead on the final achievement.

This is the sense we pick up in the Gospels. Jesus’ suffering is rendered in the briefest terms, as if drawing about it a veil of modesty. What’s important is not that Jesus suffered for us, but that Jesus suffered for us. It is the contrast with his eternal glory that awed the earliest Christians.

Eastern Orthodox hymns for Good Friday convey fearful wonder:

Today he is suspended on a Tree who suspended the earth over the waters.

A crown of thorns is placed on the head of the King of angels.

He who covered the heavens with clouds is clothed in a false purple robe.’

At such sights, ‘The heavenly powers trembled with fear’The whole creation, O Christ, trembled;

The foundations of the earth were shaken for dread of thy might…

The sun hides its rays at seeing the Master crucified…

The armies of the angels were amazed.

Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion’ promises to be a landmark expression of the strand of devotion that emphasizes identification with Jesus’ sufferings. It is a strand that has produced powerfully affecting works of art, and moved and inspired Christians for centuries. The Crucifixion was, in fact, bloody and brutal—Gibson is on solid historical ground in wishing to depict them this way—and when he prayerfully reads the Gospels, no doubt these are the pictures that appear in his mind.

But these pictures are not, actually, there in the Gospels. The writers of the Gospels chose to describe Jesus’ Passion a different way. Instead of appealing to our empathy, they invite us to awesome wonder, because they had a different understanding of the meaning of his suffering.


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