I wrote this in 2004 after watching The Passion of the Christ. These things still capture my heart. Hope they will stir yours as well.
I saw The Passion of the Christ a few days ago. Whatever else may be said about Mel Gibson, it is undeniable that he made a brave (not to mention expensive) choice to produce this film. To those who decry his motives as purely financial, I commend the revenue from his previous movies and suggest that perhaps they should rethink their accusations. In any case, it was incredible to hear the words of Jesus’ last hours very nearly as they were originally spoken. I believe the portrayal of Lucifer as a surreal being who is almost beautiful is both poignant and truthful. I think we sometimes forget that he was once the most powerful in the heavens under God. He is able to masquerade as an angel of light still only because he once was one (Isaiah 14:12, II Corinthians 11:14). Even as a fallen angel, there must be something of his earlier glory that remains. The Passion also shed light for me on the deep courage and compassion of John and the two Mary’s as they stayed near the One they loved even when they could do nothing but watch His agony. I don’t know if I would have been able to bear it. As a mother, I can much more easily imagine being tortured myself than visualize standing by while my daughter is maimed and executed. And yet Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, and John refused to allow Jesus to die alone even if it meant their own hearts would be torn in two in the process. There is a depth of love in that remaining with Him through each horrible moment that I had not considered before.
What affected me more, however, was none of these things. I was not most surprised by the brutality and blood. Even without the media’s emphasis on this, I knew a faithful representation of the gospel accounts could be nothing but graphic. What I didn’t expect was for His Jewish and Roman tormenters to take such delight in their profession. I didn’t expect the level of contempt they expressed for their victim. I wasn’t prepared for their derisive laughter or the perverse pleasure they took in scourging Jesus. How could they laugh in anticipation? How could their faces betray undisguised glee as they brought the whip down on His body? How could the guards later strike a face already so marred or force a crown of thorns on a head already so bloodied? Although some of this scorn is Mr. Gibson’s conjecture, as I re-read the familiar stories, I was reminded that very little is. Those in the temple “spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him…” (Matthew 26:67). Notice, too, that it is only after the scourging that Pilate’s soldiers “…stripped Him, and put a scarlet robe on Him…put [a crown of thorns]…on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they kneeled down before Him and mocked Him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they spat on Him, and took the reed and began to beat Him on the head.” (Matthew 27:28-30). (See also Mark 14:65, 15: 29-32; Luke 22:63-65, 23:11; etc.).
When I think about it, though, the soldiers’ responses weren’t really so unpredictable. Even though the part of us that is not tainted by sin, the part that remains a faithful image of our Creator, recoils from inflicting suffering on innocent others, our clever humanity finds ways around that inhibition. Studies in social psychology reveal that most people are unwilling to ‘punish’ others (deliver a small electric shock) for wrong answers when they are looking at them through a glass. That reservation is greatly diminished, however, when the other is behind a screen and unseen by them. They find it easier to submit to the request of a seemingly reasonable and respectable researcher than to protect someone they’ve never met. Perhaps we civilized post-moderns aren’t as different as we think from the temple guards or Roman soldiers.
History teaches us that the weak and victimized are often re-imagined as somehow deserving their fate. This is what made the Holocaust possible as thousands of ‘normal people’ sent men, women, and children to gas chambers, mass graves, and worse. It is what allowed African Americans to be treated as sub-human less than 200 years ago in this country. When those who cannot protect themselves are blamed for their pain, those who have the power to intervene and choose not to can continue to think well of themselves as they muffle their shouting consciences. In a world that worships power and strength, those who do not resist their attackers are sometimes hated all the more because of their assumed weakness. So it was with Jesus and the soldiers. “…being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
The mystery and majesty of Christ’s love, forgiveness, and compassion are all the more precious to me now. The genius of His love is that it is, ultimately, stronger than hate or violence. It is both great and good. This is what Christ understood and Judas, Caiaphas, and Lucifer did not. When my weak brother betrays me with a kiss, when my strong brother uses his authority to hurt instead of heal, when a stranger pours salt in my wound, I pray God will give me the grace to respond with the incomparable compassion of Christ.
Good Friday is good because an innocent Man died so that those He loved could be free. We were the joy set before Him that made His suffering worth it (Hebrews 12:1-3).
So, happy Good Friday!