The Passionists - Compassion

"Seeing" the Passion of Jesus

by Paul Zilonka, C.P.

SpacerHardly a year goes by that we do not have a new film about Jesus. Whether curiosity or piety motivates people (probably both), life is complicated --- biblical movies are big at the box office.

SpaceNow we have Mel Gibson's production The Passion. Advance publicity claims that it will be an extremely authentic experience of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. It promises to immerse us into that terrifying event in a way others have not dared. Roman soldiers will give gruff commands in Latin; Jewish crowds will cry out in Aramaic. From what we now know about the pervasive influence of Greek language and culture in Galilee, especially in the century before the birth of Jesus, Greek would also be appropriate.

SpaceA wealth of historical research about the Roman Empire and Jewish religious practice during Jesus' lifetime helps modern screenwriters recreate life in ancient Palestine more accurately, and therefore, recent biblical movies pay particular attention to newly-discovered historical and architectural details. Like other historical movies, this movie wants us to "feel" like a participant in the action, to "see" the Passion of Jesus as if we had been there on that unique Friday.

A New Passion Play

SpaceGibson's movie follows a long tradition of medieval passion plays. Before the birth of secular opera, these church-sponsored plays transferred the gospels to the stage as sacred dramas and made catechesis on Sunday afternoons both entertaining and spiritually beneficial. Yet though the passion plays followed the gospels for their "script," contemporary influences– especially negative attitudes towards the local Jewish population– unfortunately made their way into the plays.

SpaceThe 17th century Passion Play from Oberammergau in Germany suffered from this tendency. In recent years, its traditional script was revised in the light of modern church sensitivity to the presentation of Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus.

Can we make movies from the Gospel?

SpaceUnderstandably, modern screenwriters use the gospels as the basis for their scripts; they remain our best source for historical information about Jesus. Indeed, of all the scenes of his life, the descriptions of his last hours in Jerusalem and on Golgotha are similar in all four Gospels, which supports the scholarly theory that reflection on the death of Jesus was the initial challenge for the early church.

SpaceBut the Hollywood approach that blindly equates the biblical text with "remembered history" and takes the gospels literally for a screenplay regularly provokes stinging criticism from some first-century historians in the media.

SpaceSome scholars claim that as much as 80% of the passion narrative owes more to the influence of Old Testament prophecy than to trustworthy historical reminiscence. That degree of influence might be argued, but the New Testament itself reveals how much the Old Testament shaped its presentation of the last hours of Jesus and the aftermath of his death.

The Old Testament in the New

SpacePaul of Tarsus and other apostolic preachers proclaimed both the death of Jesus and his resurrection "according to the scriptures" of Judaism (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

SpaceThe New Testament, too, clearly associates verses from the Old Testament with the story of Jesus' death and resurrection. The four passion gospels explicitly mention specific verses from Psalms 22, 31, 40 and 69, for example. By reflectively reading these psalms with the story of Jesus' Passion in mind, someone "sees" that story already present in the Bible hundreds of years before.

SpaceTraditionally, this has been called "prophetic prediction." The presence of Old Testament texts in the New Testament shows the profound reverence early Christians had for Israel's scriptures as interpreting the significance of Jesus' sufferings and earth. Indeed, many other Old Testament texts influence the New Testament in subtler but effective ways, besides the texts mentioned above.

Early Jewish-Christian conflict and polemic

SpaceBesides the scriptural embellishment in descriptions of Jesus' last hours, well-grounded recent biblical scholarship points out another significant factor that shaped the early development of the passion narratives, namely, the zealous and spirited encounter between Jews and Gentiles over Christian evangelization.

SpaceSuffering, especially at the hands of the Roman enemy, played no part in the contemporary Jewish scenario for the expected messiah of Israel. And so Paul the Apostle had to struggle greatly to preach a crucified messiah and to offer a strong apology or defense of this unexpected development in Israel's religious history. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

SpaceChristian apologetic appears repeatedly within the gospels themselves. Jesus "predicts" his impending suffering, death and resurrection (Luke 9: 22; 9:44; 18:31-32). On Easter afternoon, the risen Jesus gives insightful scripture lessons to show the necessity that "the Messiah should suffer and so enter into his glory" (Luke 24:26, 46)

Anti-Jewish sentiment in the gospels

SpacePerhaps more importantly for the Gibson film, the volatile rhetoric found in certain Gospels must be kept in mind. Recent studies point out the sharp historical divisions between followers of Jesus and the mainstream Jewish community, as the disciples of Jesus emerged as a distinct group of believers increasingly separated from their Jewish roots.

SpaceFor example, careful analysis of the respective images of Pilate and the members of the Jewish religious hierarchy in the four gospels indicates polemical objectives in Matthew and John, who shift responsibility for his death away from Pilate to the Jewish leadership. Scholars suggest it may be evident in certain scenes, such as Pilate washing his hands while declaring himself innocent of the death of Jesus, and the depiction of the whole population of Jerusalem calling down responsibility for Jesus' death on themselves and their children (Matthew 27:24-25). Because of our current concern about anti-Semitism, one hopes these polemical elements do not appear in the Gibson film.

Calling us to take a stand

SpaceThough the passion narratives were not written as movie scripts, nor do they show much interest in detailing the physical cruelty of Jesus' sufferings, they do share something with modern cinematographers. They want us to "see the Passion" so that its message might affect us personally. The Gospel characters confront us with the moral responsibility to take a stand for or against the crucified Jesus. This is especially true of Luke's version of the death of Jesus, which we read in our churches on Palm Sunday 2004, around the time of the advertised release of Gibson's film.

SpaceIn Luke 23:33-49, once Jesus and the other people have arrived at Golgotha, Luke uses several different words associated with ‘sight' to heighten our visual experience of this memorable scene. Tension builds slowly as Luke paints the portrait of various characters standing around the cross of Jesus, with the criminals, "one on his right, the other on his left" (v.33).

Space"The people stood by and watched." (v.35) The rulers and the soldiers jeer at Jesus. Even the criminals in Luke voice their opinions, one maligning Jesus, the other "good thief" acknowledging his own guilt and receiving from Jesus a pledge of forgiveness and future reward (vv.39-42). After Jesus commends his spirit confidently into the hands of his Father, the visual language explodes like a series of fireworks at a fourth of July celebration.

Space"The centurion who had witnessed what had taken place glorified God and said, ‘This man was innocent beyond doubt.' When all the people who had gathered for the spectacle saw what had happened, they returned home beating their breasts; but all his acquaintances stood at a distance, including the women who had followed him from Galilee and saw these events." (vv.47-49)

SpaceLuke's visualization of the Calvary scene demands a response from all. No one within the scene or outside of it (ourselves) can easily walk away unmoved. Everyone must take sides for or against the Crucified.

How should we react to the Passion of Jesus?

SpaceMovie versions of the Passion of Jesus will come and go. Critics and defenders alike will abound. Whether these movies are successful or not at the box office, they keep the Passion of Jesus before our eyes, which too easily turn away from the suffering of innocent people in every culture.

SpaceDepictions of the Passion of Jesus have always caused strong reactions, as they should. While the memory of Calvary was still recent, Paul the apostle chastised one of his communities because they seemed to forget or dismiss its significance for their Christian life. "O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?" (Galatians 3:1)

SpaceIn our media culture, we need to be mindful of the extreme harm a biased presentation of Jesus' last hours can unleash.

SpaceWords of Paul the Apostle may offer some advice on this matter. In his prison letter to the church of Philippi, Paul acknowledged how some people out of envy preached Christ from rivalry and envy of Paul's influence, while others were prompted solely by good will. To Paul, their motivation mattered little. "What difference does it make, as long as in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed? And in that I rejoice." (Philippians 1:18).

SpaceIn portraying the Passion of Jesus, we need to keep in mind the troubled origins of these gospel texts and other sources used for the screenplay. At the same time, Paul the Apostle might see the controversy itself as an opportunity to preach the truth about the Passion of Jesus, as best we can know it historically.

SpacePaul would be the first to remind everyone that what should concern us most is how we Christians embrace the power and wisdom of God manifest on the cross. Paul, like Luke and the other evangelists, would emphasize "seeing the Passion of Jesus" from God's perspective. May we seize this moment of opportunity to announce the good news of Jesus, crucified and risen for us.

Fr. Paul Zilonka, C.P. is Assistant Professor of the New Testament at St. Mary Seminary, Baltimore, MD


also in this issue:
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" | "Seeing" the Passion of Jesus
Christian Mystics and the Passion | Dramatizing the Passion
Act with Compassion


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