Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Passion: My Reaction (and Yours)

The following is one of the most difficult things I have ever written (and writing comes very easy for me), because words are so utterly inadequate to describe the impact of this film. One could cite Holy Scripture, but Christians are already familiar with that, and the biblical passion is a different thing than the filmed version of it (i.e., one is real; the other is artistic depiction, which can be done in many kinds of ways). I'll try to do the best that I can do, given these limitations. I wanted to write "fresh" from seeing the movie . . .

One could talk about the now-familiar phenomenon of the silent audiences after it is over (so I will). I didn't look around too much because I was almost in front (I didn't want any distractions), but I did see many people sitting in stunned shock, teary-eyed, in a daze.

The two women about ten seats away from me in my row certainly broke down several times, but that wasn't all that different from my own reactions (I maintained general composure -- being a guy and all -- but I had to wipe my eyes three times so I could keep watching).

The most difficult scene to endure for me was the one where it shows the Blessed Virgin Mary comforting Jesus as a child, juxtaposed with His carrying of the cross and His mother watching in agony and yearning to comfort Him again. I don't think any mother in the world could get through that dry-eyed (and fathers are not all that different, when it comes down to it). It's enough to break your heart all by itself in a film otherwise far and away the most emotionally intense imaginable.

Driving home, about 15 minutes after it ended -- in a daze and moved beyond words, I happened to look over to a car at an intersection and I noticed a couple waiting at a red light, both with their heads tilted to the side and buried in their hands.

This is the way to do a biblically based movie. It is absolutely realistic; it shows what it would have been like to be there at the time. It took over a hundred years for the movies to finally show the day of crucifixion as it was. We have long since known all the technical and physiological details of crucifixion, scourging (and those scenes in the movie are arguably more excruciating than even the crucifixion, apart from the unbelievably graphic "nails" sequences), the brutality of Roman soldiers, etc., from historical research.

But no one (for some odd reason) ever put it all together in one film, as Mel Gibson has done. The Passion, in its extraordinary realism, makes the similar scenes of Jesus of Nazareth (my favorite Christian movie up till now, and superb in its own right) look like a tea party in the park.

It is real and gory and gruesome and almost impossibly painful and gut-wrenching to watch, while at the same time the direction and cinematography and acting and editing and music are all first-rate (so that it is so much more than what a video recording of the same events might have looked like).

It is art gloriously at the service of history and Christianity. The use of slow motion and flashbacks to related incidents; the devil figure, insinuations of demons (both outward and inner ones) the crushed-yet-accepting reactions of the Virgin Mary, the mocking soldiers and sneering Jewish leaders: all are brilliantly done.

What I felt as I watched it, is fairly simple to at least summarize, if not to fully describe: how it feels "on the inside". I kept thinking to myself: "God loves us THIS much; He was willing to go through all THIS! What love, what love, what love, what mercy, what forgiveness; what an awesome, GOOD GOD we have! How unworthy WE are to deserve any of this . . . "

Those who know a bit of theology about what God had to do and what He chose to do, may know that both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas held that there could have been another way to accomplish redemption: God being God (with all power and knowledge). That only makes the impact of this film all the more profound: Jesus went through these unspeakable tortures for our sake.

He did it willingly. He knew what was to happen (many passages in Scripture). He chose to suffer for us and with us, because that is such a prominent characteristic of life for most human beings throughout history -- for the purpose of saving our souls (we who are absolutely unworthy of such salvation).

And beyond that, the biblically literate person knows that our Lord Jesus had the load of the entirety of human sin on His shoulders as well. There is no way to adequately portray the unfathomable horror and ugliness and "cosmic catastrophe" of that, even in a remarkable film like this. It can't be described in words, either (even the Bible doesn't attempt to say all that much about it). It can scarcely be comprehended by our small human minds.

That's what I thought of and felt soul-deep while watching this film. You can read the well-known passages in the Scripture, such as "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). We Christians hear and read that all the time and casually process it into our brains, more or less abstractly.

But a film like this shows what the kind of love that the God-Man Jesus has for us, entails. We believe it, but The Passion gives us a chance to SEE it and experience this love, right before our eyes and deep down into our hearts and souls.

And that is the beauty and power of dramatic presentations of the biblical events -- especially of the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They appeal to the whole person and make the Bible come to life. I've always been very moved by the better biblical films (sadly, there aren't many which don't have some phony or corny or "Hollywoodish" elements in them).

This one is perfect. I don't see how it could have been done any better. I'm no film expert, but I could easily see how someone might think this is among the best movies ever made, in any genre. After all, Gibson won the Oscar for Best Director and Best Movie for Braveheart, so he is not without great skill as a filmmaker.

How one reacts, watching this, is not just the emotion that any normal human being would feel, seeing a person tortured and mistreated for the better part of two hours; it is the realization of what redemption cost God. And the more we realize what it cost Him, the more we see how utterly lost in sin we all were before the spiritual power of regeneration was graciously applied to us by God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, as a result of what Jesus did for us on that dreadful, horrific Good Friday.

If this film doesn't move a person down to their bones and fingernails and the deepest recesses of their souls, -- both emotionally and (hopefully) spiritually -- then they are as un-alive as a rock. And no one who is not changed in some way for the better by watching this, has any inkling of the sublime events which it portrays.

To recognize that level of spiritual deadness in oneself (itself only by the grace of God) would be even more terrifying that what the sin of mankind caused Jesus to have to endure -- what this film enables us to SEE as we never have before; "Jesus died for you" -- , yet it would be the first step towards redemption and salvation (which, in a word, is the entirety of what this film is about).

May all Christians unite in our prayers and efforts: that this extraordinary movie may bring about many changed lives, and more and more committed disciples of our Lord Jesus. This is our moment. The time is now. Let's stop our stupid and petty in-fighting (over these basic issues where we should all readily agree) and show the world what Christianity is really all about. The film is the first step: our behavior as Christians is the crucial second part of the witness. Please God, be with us; it's the least we can do to thank You for what You have done for us . . .

2 comments:

Ken said...

I watched this film in the theater when it came out when I was still an atheist, and a God-hating one at that. I felt no emotion throughout the film, except for a small sense of loss when I turned around and watched the somber, teary-eyed faces of everyone behind me.

Years later, after my conversion I watched it again, and it emotionally destroyed me.

Dave Armstrong said...

I need to see it again. It was an amazing movie.