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Sunday, February 22, 2004
PREPARING FOR THE PASSION

I don't have any idea what the non-Christian world is going to do with The Passion of the Christ. From the day I saw it back in June, I have been brooding over how much the film could do in the Church. In my most disconcerted moments of watching the unfolding cultural discourse, the film seems to me to be a preparation for persecution. It's like Joan of Arc asking for someone to hold up a crucifix so she could watch it as she was burning at the stake. In other moments, it seems to me that the film is primarily a moment of grace for those of us who believe, to be disturbed back into who we are: People who speak of "nothing else but Christ and Him crucified."

Face it. We are a People who have grown lukewarm and distracted. We are the pathetic People of the Gospel warning who, ignoring the Signs of the Times - or maybe crestfallen, they both result in the same pastoral paralysis - are "busy about many things; eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage..." In the end, we should be defined by the conviction that "only One Thing is necessary." The Passion of the Christ reconnects us to that essential thread of our identity: We are a People of suffering, who follow the Man of Sorrows through this current 'Valley of Tears.' The Church is supposed to be "The Fellowship" that gets us through this sojourn, but our Sign is inescapably the Cross. The Cross is foolishness to the Diane Sawyers of human history and fury to the Dominic Crossan's. And so are we who claim it as our standard.

I remember shaking my head in wonder that The Passion could have come out of this particular moment in history. Beyond even the film's fundamental message of "Behold the Wood of the Cross - Come Let us Worship," the film doesn't seem to have any artistic context. It's like it just plopped out of nowhere. After forty years in the Catholic Church (and, Lord knows, four hundred years in Protestantism) of focussed iconoclasm and the exaltation of sterility and even ugliness, from where does this lush imaging of our most defining story come? It's like, imagine if, after all these years of architectural weirdness, some Bishop showed up in your local diocese and then, well, built Notre Dame. It doesn't seem possible. I remember walking through the towering monstrousness of the $200 million new L.A. Cathedral thinking, "Well, it is large. That sense of 'largeness' is probably the best we can do these days in building churches. We have lost the ability to make something that would convey 'fear of the Lord' (ie. awe/reverence/wonder/sense of the sacred/conviction that this religion must be real if it can make a thing like this). "

So, sidestepping the debate of whether kids should see this film (probably not any real young ones - it's case by case with teenagers...), and whether it will cause a rash of pogroms (give me a frickin' break), and whether it is historically accurate (It ain't. It's ART. ART is the selection and distortion of details....Give me another frickin' break already!), I want to suggest a few ways, that the adult members of the People of God, can approach this film so as to receive the maximum spiritual benefit.

1) Get out your Bible. Read the Passion narratives in the four Gospels. Read through the Suffering Servant prophecies in Isaiah. Spend time praying over some texts like:
- "But I was a worm and no man."
- "Let us beset the Just One...he is obnoxious to us."
- "So disfigured was he that we turned our faces from him."
- "He was despised and rejected among men."

And from the Good Friday liturgy:
- "My people, my people! What have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!"

2) About the brutality of the film... Keep in mind going in that the film is basically told from two points of view: Jesus' and Mary's. How long would a scourging seem to you if you were the one under the lash? How long would the way of the cross seem to a mother watching her child travel it? The violence in the film is a VISUAL SYMBOL of the following:

A)....how horrible sin is, in that we see its effects on Jesus. All those hidden little sins we think we have gotten away with - that no one else knows...Well, here they are, wreaking horrific suffering on the Innocent One. The truth is, there is no such thing as a sin without consequences.

B)...the Divinity of Christ makes any little flick of disdain against Him an act of immeasurably evil proportions. To scourge God, is an act that has no comparable visual metaphor. How horrible is it to do violence on the One? Go ahead, you try and show the weight of that in art. I dare you...

C) ...the immensity of Christ's love. What makes him get off the ground time and time again? Any of us would have just stayed down there at a certain point and said, "Go ahead. Kill me." How would you show the power of Christ's love?

Read some supplementary literature that will prepare you for the brutality of the film. A Doctor At Calvary or The Day Christ Died might be good.

3) Read a book on the Stations of the Cross. My favorite is the one by Caryl Houselander. Get one of those little pamphlets on the stations that are so ubiquitous in Catholic churches during Lent. Go to your Church on Ash Wednesday, get your ashes and then stay a few minutes and pray through the stations. The Passion of the Christ is much more a living stations of the cross than it is a movie. (By that I mean the film has none of the usual narrative hooks and arcs. )

4) Make an examination of conscience. Have your wounds fresh in your mind. What is it that you are attracted to that also disgusts and repels you? Get your helplessness and your need for a Savior in your frontal lobe.

Then, go buy a ticket. Walk past the popcorn and soda. Plop down in a seat and forget all the controversy. Encounter the film as an act of worship and prayer.

Have a holy Lent.