Priest John McCuen

Some Thoughts on the Film "The Passion of the Christ"

Is there anyone who has not heard something about Mel Gibsonís new movie, "The Passion of the Christ," which was released on Ash Wednesday, the day kept in the western Church as the first day of Lent? What, if anything, should we as Orthodox Christians, say or do in response to this film?

There is much about the film that is powerful, and positive. As the movie begins, we see the actor portraying our Lord Jesus Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is trembling with fear; and, at one point, he says to one of the disciples with him that he "does not want the others to see me this way." As the film develops, however, there is depicted the One spoken of in one of the "secret" prayers of the anaphora: "On the night in which He was betrayed, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world."

On the other hand, a significant part of the film involves material that is extra-Biblical, and violence that is often gratuitous. At times, I felt as if I was being manipulated, with scenes designed to wrench out an emotional response from the viewer. There were also elements which would have been laughable, if not for these being insulting to the intelligence, and which, to my mind, subtracted from the film.

At its core, "The Passion of the Christ" is the story of our Lordís suffering from a Roman Catholic perspective. Anyone familiar with the "Stations of the Cross," a popular Lenten devotional in some Western churches, will recognize these as each is "staged" in the movie. This material, together with the visions of two medieval Roman Catholic nuns, has been visualized in the movie in a very dramatic and provocative way. But is it Orthodox?

In researching the Orthodox understanding of the Passion of our Lord, I have come across a description that is a powerful response. It comes from the book, Introducing the Orthodox Church, written by Anthony M. Coniaris. Discussing the icon of the Crucifixion, he writes: "Crucifixion paintings of Western art present a tragic drama of a man undergoing the ultimate agony of suffering. They depict the opened mouth of the Crucified One in its final death spasm. They encircle the head with an excessively large crown whose sharp thorns pierce the forehead, dripping clots of blood. With the picture of the horror of the human corpse, they seek the creation of Ďsympathyí in the spectator.

"How different the icon of the crucifixion! As Photios Kontoglou writes, 'Here there is nothing from the world of corruption. The forms and colors do not impart the frigid breath of death, but the sweet hope of immortality. Christ is depicted as standing on the Cross, not hanging on it. His body is of flesh, but flesh of another nature, flesh whose nature has been changed through the grace of the Holy Spirit. The expression in His face is full of heavenly tranquility; the affliction which has befallen Him is full of gentleness and forgiveness, exempt from agonized contractions on the face. It is the suffering redeemer, He Who has undone the pangs of death, Who has granted the peace of the life to come. This crucified body is not that of just anyone, but is the very body of the God-Man Himself! It radiates the hope of the Resurrection. The Lord does not hang on the Cross like some miserable tatter, but it is He, rather, Who appears to be supporting the Cross. His hands are not cramped, being nailed to the wood; rather, He spreads them out serenely in the attitude of supplication. I repeat: the forms and colors of the liturgical icon do not express the brute horror of death, but have the nobility and gentleness of eternal life. It is illuminated by the light of hope in Christ. It is full of the grace of the Paraclete" (p. 179).

We do not (and cannot) ignore the reality of the Passion. Beaten; whipped; mocked; spat upon; abused--who among us could endure such treatment? And then to be crucified, and endure the pain of the nails, and the unbelievably cruel, slow death? All this was endured for our sake by our Lord Jesus Christ; and we do well to remember that our sins made it necessary for the Son of God to die. "Christ died for our sins."

But there is a difference in focus, from the West to the Orthodox, which underlies the difference in the depiction from the icon to the film. In part, it can be said that, with respect to the Passion of our Lord, the focus in the Western Church is on the shedding of Christís blood as the atonement for sins. In the West, atonement is the compensation for sin as a condition for our salvation. Manís sin was such an infinite transgression that no man could pay the price or right the wrong, except God Himself; Who became man to do just that, and so satisfy the justice required by a righteous God. The focus is on sin and justification before God.

The principal focus of the Orthodox faith is one of life and death, more than sin and justification. Atonement is not a precursor to salvation; it is salvation. Our Lord, through His Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, changes the very being of mankind. His victory is over sin and death; and it objectively changes the cosmos and liberates humanity as God, in an act of His love, reconciles the world to Himself. His suffering was real; but more to the point, by His death, He has destroyed death. Glory to God!