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"Understanding" the Passion of The Christ
by John Jakubczyk, Esq.
25 March 2004

A review that explains much of the film's symbolism that the average viewer may not have grasped.

We draw from our experience when we attempt to understand something that touches our senses. Our lives are built upon these experiences and they enlighten or prejudice us when we encounter new and perhaps different expressions of old themes. For some the mere reminder of a certain subject will trigger memories or reactions that are more visceral than reflective. For others, the event can be an awakening of a new chapter in their life.

So it can be with an event such as viewing the movie, The Passion of the Christ.

Many are finding it a “tool” to help deepen their faith. Some find the movie appalling because of the violence or the subject matter. There are those who, having never been confronted with the Christian salvation story, are dazed and confused. Many of those who have the scars of anti-Semitic hatred etched in their lives are fearful of that demon being released from the depths of hell. As a result, these individuals may be willing to consider the entire Christian message suspect. It especially bothers them when a celebrity, whose elderly father espouses some rather bizarre views of history, produced the movie. It should be noted for the record that despite opinions to the contrary, the son does not embrace those same views.

Further, it is interesting that most of those who are devout Jews apparently do not have as much of a problem with The Passion as their secular counterparts. Granted, some observant Jews are concerned by the film and their comments draw from their experiences. However, most of the complaints by secularists, Jew and Gentile alike, seem to attack the film’s message and its relation to the “Christian” world-view. This view places Christ at the center of human history. Most people who endorse the so-called “Enlightenment” do not like the notion of Jesus Christ as the “Lord” of history. This may be where the real source of objection to the movie derives its philosophical underpinnings. After all, what if Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament? What of the notion that humankind needed a redeemer? If Jesus died for our sins, then we are all sinners. If we all are sinners, then each one of us needs a Redeemer. It means that man is not the “end-all-be-all” or the “center” of the all that is. It also means that we are special and unique and that God wants a relationship with us. It means there are absolutes and standards after all. A lot of people do not want to believe in such things.

So how does all of this relate to this movie? First of all, the movie is more than just a film. The producer draws from a tradition where art is utilized to remind us of central tenets of the Christian faith. Throughout the first millennium art was used to present the mysteries of Christ’s passion and death. The Stations of the Cross are a major example of this art. The Church used the art as a tool for meditation and prayer. The thousands of paintings of the crucifixion throughout the Middle Ages are further testimony of the power of art to move the believer toward a deeper relationship with God. How is the movie, The Passion of the Christ, any different?

As a Catholic, I could deeply appreciate the film as a moving “Via Dolorosa” or “Way of the Cross.” I was drawn into the meditation on the sufferings of Our Lord. I could appreciate the means by which the artist “painted” his celluloid canvas and drew from both the Old and New Testament in both words and symbols throughout the film. I could understand the flashbacks to the Last Supper while He was being raised on the cross. The scene where the bread is placed before Him in the meal, followed by the stripping on Calvary, was so powerful as it brought home the passage where Christ tells His followers that He is the Bread of Life. The remainder of the scene has Him offering His body and Blood at the Last Supper in the flashback while He is being raised up on the cross. The imagery of the Sacrament reflects the relationship between the sacrifice on the cross and the Eucharist. There is a reason why the Church refers to the liturgy as “the Sacrifice of the Mass.” The film brings this point home to the viewer.

Gibson also draws upon the close relationship between Mary and Jesus. There she is at all of the critical points of His Passion, suffering in a way that only a mother can suffer, and yet somehow aware that the redemption of mankind was at hand. The movie is at times seen from her eyes and we are invited to become a part of this deep love between a mother and her son. Especially powerful is the meeting between Mary and Jesus on the street after he falls and she runs to Him. There is a flashback of Jesus falling as a child and the anguish Mary felt as she tried to protect Him from the pain. Here Gibson captures the raw emotion of a mother’s love for her child. This emotion is conveyed throughout the movie in Mary right up to the end when she holds the body of Christ at the foot of the cross. This is also a powerful piece of imagery – the Pieta – the grieving mother holding her dead son. Michelangelo, in what may be arguably the greatest work of sculpted art – The Pieta - captured the same pain in stone 500 years ago.

As for the framing of the film and the various scenes, each could be a painting in its own right. In a manner similar to Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Gibson provides the viewer with a series of moments – still shots, so to speak – which then come alive with action. Each event - Christ in the garden during His agony, the scourging at the pillar, the crowning of thorns, His embracing and carrying the cross and the crucifixion – all are meditations of the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary and each is a “picture” itself for the viewer to contemplate.

In the same vein, each one of the Stations of the Cross comes to life in The Passion of the Christ. Catholics will recognize the vignettes including Veronica wiping the face of Jesus and Simon carrying the cross. In one of the more telling moments of the film, Simon declares to the crowd that he is the innocent man forced to carry the cross of this criminal. Yet by the time Simon reaches the top of Calvary, he realizes that Christ is the innocent man and that our sins are the cause for these events. We relate to Simon because many times in our own lives we are “forced” to carry the “cross” of unemployment or health disorders or family crises. We do not want to be burdened with these sufferings. Yet after bearing our cross, we learn more about who we are as persons and how we are there to help others through their difficult times.

Having read a number of reviews since the movie was released, I am of the opinion that many reviewers did not understand the significance of much of the symbolism, such as the blood, or the whole notion that sin causes so much destruction to our lives. The recent bombings in Spain and Iraq should bring home the message that human beings are capable of terrible actions toward other human beings. The last century was the most violent in the history of mankind. When juxtaposed with the purpose of Christ’s suffering and death to redeem mankind, there had to be the blood. Only this blood was a cleansing blood. This blood was the blood of the Passover lamb covering the lintels and doorposts of those who would be saved. This blood was the blood of the New Covenant, which would be poured out for remission of sins. Indeed the Book of Revelation speaks of the saints whose robes were washed in the blood of the Lamb. As if to remind us of the preciousness of His blood, there is the scene during which Mary is on her hands and knees wiping up His blood after the scourging. The symbolism is profound as it is stark and troubling.

There are those who could not or will not get beyond the violent treatment of the story, the sadistic guards, the angry crowds, the mockery of the trial. Part of that may be their nature. Part of this may be their fear. I know one gentleman who could not stomach the film and not because he does not know or love the Gospels. He is a fine man whose daily life reflects a kindness toward His fellow man that many would do well to emulate. He just could not handle the violence.

So it is important that we return to the initial point of this article, that where people “are” in their lives will color the way in which they encounter this film and everything that the film may signify. It may reflect their own prejudice and the extent of their hostility to the message conveyed. On the other hand, they may relate very much to the stated purpose of the film. A person will see what he or she wants to see. So if the person is bound and determined to see anti-Semitic images in the film, that individual will read this Gospel story as such.

The truth is, the average moviegoer will leave the showing haunted by a powerful film that asks the viewer some fundamental questions about life and the nature of man’s relationship to God. Thus, the movie’s most important role in today’s vapid celebrity obsessed society may be to ask, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” If during this time of Lent, people begin to ask themselves if they believe in God and in His word, perhaps they may begin to reform their lives, take up their own cross daily and follow after Him. That reawakening would be the greatest return on investment for Mel Gibson and for us all.

John Jakubczyk is a lawyer and President of Arizona Right to Life. He has been a frequent speaker on life issues throughout the country.

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