Reflections on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ
We were a dozen men and women from assorted backgrounds and professions seated around a large table at Icon Productions. As the room was darkened and the film began, it was a month before the film’s Ash Wednesday 2004 debut in theaters.
There was no fanfare. No music. Not a sound. Only a black screen with the words:
“He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5) (800 B.C.).”
I was filled instantly with love and gratitude for the heart, the transformed heart, of the man who understood Isaiah’s prophecy, who loved the one of whom it spoke, and who would desire to make such a message known at any cost.
In that moment, a moment I wished could have been stilled for a long while, I thought back to my first encounter with that chapter of Isaiah. I had not heard it in synagogue through all my years in the Jewish faith. I was thirty-two years old when I heard it for the first time from Jewish Christians who believed that the one of whom the prophet spoke was the Messiah—the Jewish Messiah, the one for whom we waited all our young lives, the one who was the hope of Israel. He was God: God come to earth in human flesh to take upon himself the sin of the world, to be “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities,” to die and, at last, to rise from the dead to give us life.
What a story. Who could believe such a thing? In the words of Isaiah, “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (Is. 53:1). Certainly to us who are Christians, who are followers of the Messiah, the Christ. But for many the story seems distant, and the Christ who was wounded and bruised for us appears so sanitized on the crosses of our churches and on the crucifixes around our necks.
What if the reality of our Lord’s Passion were made present to us, if we could see what our Christ went through? What if the Gospel accounts came alive in our hearts, if we could experience the faith and the failings, the joys and the agonies, of our Lord’s disciples?
And what if the writings, the music, the paintings, and the untold expressions of prophets, mystics, saints, and sinners could be poured through the heart of one man? What if that one artist would risk image, career, and material wealth to make the story known? But not the complete story. Only the part where the Christ suffered, the part where he was wounded and bruised and pierced through and put to death for sin that was not his own. Blessed be God for the gift of such a story, 2,000 years old yet ever new, so incredibly portrayed by director Mel Gibson and his outstanding cast of actors.
As The Passion begins, our Lord’s arrest is taking place in the garden. He has just eaten the Passover meal with his disciples, sung the Hallel Psalms, and gone with them to the Mount of Olives. As the struggle in the garden grows between the soldiers and Christ’s disciples, the scene changes to Mary, the Mother of the one being arrested on that Passover eve, the Mother of the one of whom John the Baptist exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Every Jewish home in Jerusalem was preparing for this most sacred annual feast in commemoration of Israel’s deliverance from over 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Every household would bring a lamb to the Temple to be slaughtered, a lamb “without blemish, a male a year old” (Ex 12:5) according to the instructions God had given to Moses and Aaron. More than 500 years had passed since the Exodus from Egypt. As the Jews of Jerusalem sat down to the Passover table, to the Seder (meaning “service”), even as our Lord did with his disciples, the question from every young Jewish male that began the recounting of that deliverance was: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
That began the story, a story that did not end with the remembrance of a past deliverance only but looked forward to a future deliverance when Mashiach ben Da-vid’ (Messiah son of David) would come at last to establish his kingdom, to gather his people from the four corners of the earth, and to bring peace.
As the soldiers seize Jesus on the Mount of Olives, the camera switches to Mary, who sits up suddenly in her bed as if awakened with a jolt and asks—in a surrendered, stoic voice—“Why is this night different from all other nights?” It is the beginning of the Passover to which all Passovers pointed. She knew. She knew that her Son was the Lamb, the Lamb to which all other lambs pointed.
Maia Morgenstern, who portrays Mary in the film, could not be more outstanding. Morgenstern is Jewish, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and a leading actress in the Romanian Yiddish theater. From her superb acting, she seems to have been graced with an understanding of “her” Son’s Passion beyond the mere script. Apparently it was Morgenstern who suggested the inclusion of that vital question that began Christ’s Passover. And it was she who through her every expression and word showed what it means to be surrendered to God’s will.
What would the real Mary have thought through the arrest, mock trial, scourging, and death of her Son? Would she have understood through the Tanach (Old Testament Scripture) that he would be rejected by men (cf. Is. 53:3), betrayed by a friend (Ps. 41:9), sold for thirty pieces of silver (Zech. 11:12), silenced before his accusers (Is. 53:7), mocked (Ps. 22:7–8), beaten (Is. 52:14), spit upon (Is. 50:6), pierced through his hands and feet (Ps. 22:16), crucified with thieves (Is. 53:12), given gall and vinegar to drink (Ps. 69:21), pierced through his side (Zech. 12:10), that not a bone would be broken (Ps. 34:20), that lots would be cast for his garments (Ps. 22:18)? And that beyond the Passion he would be buried in a rich man’s tomb (cf. Is. 53:9), rise from the dead (Ps. 16:10), ascend into heaven (Ps. 68:18), and sit down at the right hand of God (Ps. 110:1)?
Some have criticized the film for going beyond the Gospel accounts in its portrayal of the sufferings of Christ. I wonder if Isaiah would agree. Here is his report:
“Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many were astonished at him—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men—so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand” (Is. 52:13–15).
Misapplication of Scripture? Jesus himself said to the Jews in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40).
I don’t know how anyone can miss the message of The Passion, that “he who knew no sin became sin for us,” that he died for the sins of the world, the just for the unjust. And for one end: that we might have life. Twice the Jesus of Gibson’s Passion says, “Father, forgive them.” The latter of the two was from the cross, a scene familiar to us from Luke 23:34. But the first was at the very point that a nail was being driven through our Lord’s hand to the crossbeam beneath. I learned later that, though not obvious to the viewer, the hand that drove the nail was Gibson’s hand. He wanted in that way to acknowledge his part in the death of Christ.
It could have been my hand.
About two years after I entered the Church, I gave my conversion story to a small group of Catholics in New York. At the question-and-answer session that followed, one of the attendees asked aloud, “How do you think your parents will respond when they stand before God and find out that they killed Christ?”
I was startled. I think all in attendance stopped breathing. Gathering my thoughts, I asked the questioner, “Did Christ die for my parents only? Did he die for the Jews only? Did he not die for you as well? Because if he did, then your sins also nailed him to the cross, as did the sins of the entire world for whom he died.”
Anyone who thinks that the Jews alone or the Jews in conjunction with the Romans alone were responsible for the death of Christ understands neither the nature of his death nor the nature of his life. Do you think the Jewish leaders or Roman governor and soldiers had power to put to death the Son of God? And what of Judas, who betrayed him, and the disciples who abandoned and denied him? “No one takes it [my life] from me,” said our Lord, “but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:18).
Does that mean that those who played a direct role in the Crucifixion are not accountable? Not at all. All the synoptic Gospels include Jesus’ words concerning Judas: “The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed!” (Matt. 26:24). Those involved in our Lord’s death were accountable for their actions. God alone knows the heart of every man. He alone knows the fear, faith, blindness, and accountability of each soul. It was he who said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
What a tragedy that the 2,000 years following that greatest act of love the world has ever known have been riddled with senseless strife and bloodshed over who killed the one who gave his life for us. It was sin that killed the Savior, and it was sin for which he came to die. And what a deep sadness it is that, given the means of communication in this day, any soul should be without knowledge of the God who entered time, who humbled himself to share in our humanity so that we might share in his divinity and spend eternity in his presence.
But the greatest tragedy of all is that the Jewish people, through whom and for whom he came, should be kept from knowing their own Messiah. Many acknowledge that what we Christians await as his Second Coming will be what the Jewish nation recognizes as his first coming.
But it is contrary to the teaching of the Church that Israel should not know their Messiah prior to his Second Coming. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by ‘all Israel,’ for ‘a hardening has come upon part of Israel’ in their ‘unbelief’ toward Jesus” (CCC 674, emphasis added). The part of Israel upon whom such hardening has come is that part still outside the Church. The other part is inthe Church, that part of which I and every other Hebrew Catholic are a part.
And it is contrary to charity. How can some claim on the one hand to believe that Jesus is “the Christ,” the Son of the living God, and on the other that Israel doesn’t need him for salvation? “They have Moses,” some say. But it was Jesus himself who said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:46). If the one in whom we have placed our trust for salvation is not the Messiah of Israel, then whose Messiah is he? And if we believe he is the Messiah of Israel, then why, in the name of love, would we withhold that knowledge from them?
The world owes a debt of gratitude to Mel Gibson and Jim Caviezel (who plays Jesus) for their part in bringing us into the Passion of our Lord. Bravo to Inside the Vatican magazine for naming Mel Gibson its “Man of the Year.” I would urge every Catholic to read its January 2004 issue (see www.insidethevatican.com).
My deepest respects to Rabbi Daniel Lapin for his most outstanding article “What Happened to ‘Artistic Freedom’?” on pages 37–39 of that same issue. Through his honesty and integrity, Rabbi Lapin has enkindled the pride and happiness I feel in my Jewish heritage, a heritage that I love so much and for which I am so grateful.
Is Mel Gibson’s Passion anti-Semitic, as some fear? No. Is it true to the Gospels? It is, even as seen through the heart of an artist. In the words of Michael Medved, a much-respected Jewish film critic and radio host, Gibson’s film “represents by far the most moving, substantive, and artistically successful adaptation of biblical material ever attempted by Hollywood.”
May every Jew and every Gentile be so blessed as to utter, this side of heaven, the words of the devout Simeon as he held the Christ Child in the Temple:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32, emphasis mine).
“For the sake of his sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.”