The Passion of the Christ: Vera Icon?
As we approach the end of Lent and begin heading for the empty tomb, I recommend a viewing of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The incompatibility of the Son of God undergoing the shameful and hideous death of a convicted felon is lost in our modern times. Herein lies the value of Gibson’s film. He has successfully shocked both the pious and the pagan in this gripping account of Jesus’ last hours. In the apostolic era, believing that the Son of God willingly underwent such a death was unthinkable and required a supernatural faith (1Cor.1.23). We, however, live in a time when contradictory notions of all sorts are believed with little trouble. Gibson’s presentation of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Christ will not permit such complacency. Believers are provoked to wonder and unbelievers are to worry over the personal implications of this man’s death.
The brutal treatment and bloodthirsty condemnation of Jesus as depicted in the film has caused many to fear a backlash of anti-Semiticism even though some of these same critics have offered that Gibson is not anti-Semitic nor is there any anti-Semiticism implied in the film. After listening to these concerns it sounds like the fear is that the world is filled with people who hate the Jews and will use any means to incite the population against them. Along this line of thinking, Gibson’s film is like a package of razor blades in an insane asylum, and we must keep it out of the hands of the crazies. I have tried to sympathize with this point of view, but the concerns have been overstated. Overall, Gibson’s work keeps within the lines of the gospel account. The film portrays the Jewish people broadly and charitably, they are honest and corrupt, caring and callous, heroic and heinous, much like any other people or culture. Film critic, Michael Medved, also a practicing Jew, has observed, “… the fact that persecutors and bigots have distorted teachings of the New Testament for their own cruel purposes doesn’t mean that those Gospel texts, sacred to all Christians, must be scrapped, revised or ignored in a serious work of cinema.”
The traditional Stations of the Cross are used as a device to structure the Savior’s torturous trek to Calvary. Some of these incidents are included in the New Testament, but most are from Roman Catholic tradition. Gibson seizes these moments and exploits their dramatic depth. Jesus’ words to Mary and Simon the Cyrene’s agreement to carry the cross are especially poignant. Many won’t know the identity of the woman who bravely offers a towel Jesus uses to wipe his bloody face. She is the woman who according to Roman Catholic tradition later took the cloth with the bloody imprint of the Savior’s face to Rome. The towel was called the “vera icon” from the Latin for “true image” and known along with other relics deemed genuine as “true images” or the “veronica,” hence the identity of the momentary heroine on the path to Calvary: Veronica.
The characterization of Satan in the film is the most subtle and imaginative treatment of the devil since C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. We might object to the presence of devil as conflicting with what we are told in the gospel account. The presence of Satan, however, is a useful dramatic device through which redemptive history is collapsed into the limitations of a film and the larger purpose of Christ’s sufferings is discovered. As Jesus rises from prayer and crushes the head of the snake crawling on the ground at his feet, he fulfills the earliest prophecy of his coming (Gen.3.15). The interaction between Christ and Satan in Gethsemane is not taken from any of the gospels, but through unmistakeable imagery and action, Gibson reminds of Creation and Fall and the larger reason for Jesus’ mission. Satan knows why Jesus has come, and the threat of our redemption is seen in the eyes of this intriguing and desperate creature.
This is an extremely violent and bloody film, and no film in recent history has evoked such concern over its graphic portrayal. I suspect the disapproval of many critics is less the voice of reason and more the complaint of the age old human/gnostic tendency to sanitize Christianity, emphasizing the teachings of Jesus and presenting His death by crucifixion as either tragic or false. Gibson’s film is timely as it comes when the reading public has grown accustomed to the more “acceptable” and fictitious accounts of Christ’s life and death. Consider how bestsellers like Karen Armstrong’s History of God or Dan Brown’s more popular, Da Vinci Code have championed less-than-divine ideas about Christ. The success of books like these, depends, to some degree, upon their readers distaste for a bloody atoning sacrificial death on their behalf. In contrast, Gibson’s work rests squarely upon the received historic truth of the Messiah’s death as the Lamb of God, slain for sinners. As film critic Roger Ebert has put it, “…The Passion of the Christ,” more than any other film I can recall, depends upon theological considerations.”
Gibson’s film is the artistic creation of a man committed to a particular theology. The Roman Catholic crucifix is the consummate expression of his faith. In this view, Christ became a willing victim on the cross and in a real sense, remains so forever as a victim that He might be continually and regularly offered in the Mass. The theology of Rome and the Mass in particular are the bedrock of Gibson’s own thinking. As a Protestant, of course, I have substantive disagreements with the theology of Rome, but Gibson’s film is an achievement for us all. The world will not be changed through this film, but those who have condescendingly and casually dismissed historic Christianity now have Gibson’s film with which to reckon. He has brought them the image of Christ from the perspective of Christianity. Like the legendary Veronica, he urges us all to believe it is the real thing.