February 25, 2004,
Since I am not Buddhist, I feel the respect due to the beliefs of others but very little personal awe when I read of Buddha, so I suppose that something similar must be in play when those who are not Christian hear of Jesus Christ.
Since, however, I am a Christian, the passion and death of Jesus Christ fill me with awe, wonder, and love. Odd as it may seem, Jesus is a daily part of my interior monologue that frequent, almost permanent inner prayer that any believer has with his or her God. For me, Jesus Christ is One with the Creator of the stars and sun and moon, Architect of the whole universe, including all the enormous cold silence of the galaxies, and all the wondrous poetry, music, heroism, beauty and mind that we encounter here on tiny, fragile earth. I know that He is One with His Father. He is the Word in whom, and with whom, and by whom were made all the things that have been made.
To devout Jews and Muslims such assertions must reek of blasphemy. There is only one God, and that Holy One is too great to be imagined in human form, too transcendent to be spoken of except by indirection.
In this light, Jesus Christ is already a figure of contradiction, before one even turns to his life, suffering, and death. To some, all-holy. To others, a blasphemer and perhaps a megalomaniac, calling himself the Son of God. A poseur.
The centerpiece of the drama of the life and death of Jesus Christ, whose approximate date of birth has given the West its central point of Time for designating the years Before and After, is of course that crossroads city of the three great monotheistic religions of Abraham, Jerusalem itself, nestled in the hills of ancient Judea.
And Jerusalem has become in this late February week of the year 2004 A.D. the city toward which millions of eyes will be turning as the new blockbuster film of Mel Gibson The Passion of the Christ opens across the United States on Ash Wednesday.
In Washington, D.C., my assistant (seeking tickets for himself and some friends) learned of a man who had bought out a 350-seat theater in advance, and who was worried that he might not be able to sell all those tickets. My assistant called to order the tickets he wanted, and then was told that there were already nearly 1,000 requests for those tickets. So the original purchaser bought out another theater for the opening, and was now seeking a third.
In some ways, nonetheless, 2004 may be one of the worst possible years for a film of the Passion to appear. A very ugly anti-Semitism has been erupting like multiple boils at many places on the planet at once. Anti-Semitic passion and ugly violence have been appearing in old Europe at a pitch hardly seen since before World War II. Arab media have been spreading teachings of hate and hostility, directed not only at the Jewish nation, but also at times toward the Jewish religion. Anyone who remembers from the annals of the last four centuries the evils that sometimes erupted after "Passion Plays" in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere can scarcely maintain a high comfort level as the movie opens.
BROTHERLY OUTREACHStill, as one of those few thousands of Americans who have been privileged to attend an advance screening of one of the various rough cuts of the Gibson film in its progress toward completion during the last seven months, I can testify that, for serious Christians at least, the film occasions an overpowering religious experience of quiet, peace, and brotherly outreach. For this Lord for whom we have such tender love, and to whom our lives and deaths are committed, and Who internally unites all of us since He first appeared, and down all the ages until He will come again in judgment, appears here before our eyes on the large screen undergoing almost unendurable lashings, and falls, and mockery, and finally a suffocating death, at the hands of the rough, joking Roman soldiers. He dies with the love and forgiveness he preached from the beginning.
Of course, we have known about this all our lives. Every crucifix in every church, and around our necks, and on the green grass graves row upon row in the cemeteries, announces it. The Nicene Creed which is recited at every Sunday Mass intones the solemn words: "...born of the Virgin Mary...for our sins He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died, and was buried." The passion and death of Jesus Christ, and his resurrection on the third day thereafter, is at the very heart of the Christian faith. It is all so historical, so enfleshed, so tied to real places such as the Mount of Olives, the winding way of the cross, and Golgotha. So precisely dated. So well attested to by historical records.
And, of course, for those who stand outside the Christian faith, the story of Christ is all somewhat preposterous, perhaps even pathetic. Yet there it is, athwart history, pregnant with inner power. That historians have seen the roughly computed date of the birth of Christ as a kind of axial point in the subsequent human story has a certain plausibility, even inevitability.
And yet how are Judaism and Christianity related? What has Judaism to do with Jesus Christ?
There is an important asymmetry between Jewish and Christian faiths. Christians must of necessity accept the essential truth of Judaism, for without Judaism Christianity does not make sense in its own terms. The Catholic worship service, the Mass, is a rite whose backbone is the sacrifice of Abraham, Melchisedech, and the Passover Seder. It is replete with prayers taken from the Jewish liturgy. The daily Office of the Hours that spreads that central worship over the whole day, from Matins before dawn until Vespers at twilight, is composed by a measure of some seventy to eighty percent of Jewish prayers, most notably (but not only) the Psalms.
By contrast, Jewish faith is not at all dependent on Christian faith. It may (or may not) have respect for Christian faith, the faith (as it were) of a problematic daughter, and it can scarcely avoid judging Christian faith to be seriously erroneous. One of my Jewish friends chides me that Christianity is "far too optimistic" about man, far too unrealistic about so many things...Pretty perhaps, but not really, he says, a livable faith.
On the positive side, some Jewish writers have given Christianity credit for having made the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob known all around the world. By its great missionary impulse, they note, Christianity has added a certain worldwide historical strength to the cultural inspiration of Judaism. Today, for instance, Jews worldwide number under 20 million, while Christians number well over two billion, a full third of the world population. Yet the whole world tends to pair Christianity and Judaism, as in some mysterious destiny fatefully intertwined.
We are in fact, blessedly, linked forevermore. For Christians, it is very good it is even essential that until the end of time there should always be a vital Jewish religious community, alive with intellect and knowledge and wisdom, for without such a community from whom to be nourished, we could never come to understand accurately our own earliest and deepest heritage. Spiritually, it might be that Jews could get along quite well without Christians; but the reverse is not true.
POWERFUL PASSIONI have never sat in the presence of a religious film with anything like the power of The Passion. At the end of it, I wanted to weep, and to be silent, and to commune with my God, on whom my sins had heaped such afflictions. From the opening scene, it is clear that God's Will governs the last twelve hours of Christ's suffering and death, and that He is called, not by his own will, but his Father's, to die for my sins. I am not certain how the filmmaker achieved this effect, but from the opening instant I felt personally drawn into recognition of my own responsibility for what was to come. Perhaps the impenetrability of the ancient Aramaic language, which put me in a zone of timelessness and culturelessness, and the sudden alarming appearance of the serpentine presence and power of evil. This drama goes far beyond one time, one place, one people; it is situated in the soul of each of us, where a war is being fought out.
No matter how many times I had heard the Passion story recited aloud (and every year in every Catholic Church two of the gospels Saint John's on Good Friday and one of the other three in rotation on Palm Sunday are read aloud), and no matter how many crucifixes I had prayed before, or statues of Jesus after the scourging, or with the crown of thorns causing blood to flow down his forehead; despite all this familiarity, no form of art can compare with the cinema for its power to make one live through real human stories in so total and immediate a way. For the first time, I felt really inside Christ's suffering, enduring with him, or more exactly enduring like those who loved him then, forced like his mother to be witnesses. I now knew, as never before, the duration of his excruciating pain. Unlike a painting, cinema gives us the pain-filled passage of time.
It was as if, of anything that any human being had ever been asked by his Creator to suffer, Christ was taking on his full share, as much as one human could possibly endure. I have never been able to bear lashings shown on camera, hearing the whips strike flesh. In this film, it was often well beyond my capacity to keep my eyes open, without turning away in unbearable pain. Never has cinema shown such a lashing as this, while the Roman soldiers take their time, their pleasure, and exhibit their jesting professional skill in selecting various configurations of flesh-ripping lash.
When I reached home after the theater, I got out my New Testament, and read again each of the four accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Gibson had not been able to record everything, and he had had to make choices among the accounts. He had had to imagine for himself how best to choose standpoints so as most intimately and powerfully to bring witnesses such as ourselves into the action. I was surprised by how faithful to text after text the film I had just seen had been. Gibson's is not a fastidious historian's account not a film by National Geographic or even by the (increasingly unreliable) History Channel. It is an artist's rendering. A great artist's rendering. It brings to mind every great painting of the event one has ever seen. It makes one reach for Handel's Messiah and Bach's St. Matthew's Passion.
The Passion of the Christ is a wondrously wrought work of art, a kind of prayer all its own. It achieves what I would have thought impossible. It makes one forget art, and think of the Lord and his suffering and one's own sins. It brings one to awe for one's fellow man, fellow sufferer, fellow weakling. And it brings one to one's knees.
I know from talking to many others that this is not merely an autobiographical reaction, but a very common one. Perhaps it will only be so for Christians, or work only for Christians who already share a certain felt unity in Christ. For Christians, for certain, this film moves to a realm beyond words. Silence is what one craves at the end. Silence. Awe. Gratitude. A desire to follow the First and Greatest Commandment, and also the Second (as Jesus summed them up the Ten):
Love the Lord thy God with thy whole soul, thy whole mind, thy whole self.There is, of course, an old saying: "No good deed goes unpunished." It is part of the wisdom of Judaism and Christianity, hard-won, to recognize that one inner conversion, even during an intense experience, does not a lifetime make. The mountain one is led up during this one viewing of a powerful film must be scaled again and again, on more prosaic, less nourishing days.
One of the sins I was led to consciousness of during this screening is the sin of Christians against Jews. One could see forming here the historic separation between Christians and Jews. And yet the sins of Christians that followed upon this separation the accusations of "Christ-killer" horribly missed the whole point of Christ's death. They added immeasurably to the sufferings of the Christ. They are an indescribable betrayal and disgrace. They are also, for a Catholic, doctrinally untenable.
If we do not love and care for one another, the immense suffering of Jesus which as if for the first time is borne into our senses by this film is in vain.
Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak's own website is www.michaelnovak.net. This piece was first written for the Jerusalem Post and is reprinted with permission.