On Christmas and Easter, churches that otherwise have room in the pews for worshipers to spread out are suddenly jam-packed. That's not surprising given the centrality of these holidays to the Christian faith.
I think church attendance also spikes on these dates, however, in part because it's easy to celebrate the birth and resurrection of our savior. But it's not so easy to ponder why we needed to be saved, nor what Jesus actually undertook on our behalf.
The season of Lent - the period from Ash Wednesday up to Easter - is a time for Christians to reflect upon their own sinfulness and Jesus Christ's sacrifice. That's why the release of Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" on Ash Wednesday last week was appropriate.
Before seeing the film, I read the Gospel accounts. I attended my church's Ash Wednesday evening service before heading to the theater. Still, I was not fully prepared.
This probably was the most disturbing movie I've ever watched. It also was by far the most spiritually moving and significant.
"The Passion" focuses on Jesus being arrested, tried and crucified, while providing intermittent flashbacks to earlier times. Two of these juxtapositions moved me to tears. The first was a look back to Mary rushing to care for Jesus who falls as a small child, offset by a mother meeting her bloodied son who labors carrying his own cross. The other moved back and forth from the severity of crucifixion, with the nails being driven into his hands, to the Last Supper, where Jesus instituted Holy Communion.
Gibson again proves to be a masterful filmmaker. He captures both the brutality and the beauty of Christ's sacrifice.
The film has come under harsh criticism, though. An almost militant secular aversion exists in our society for anything overtly religious in a traditional sense. Vague, New Age-ish spirituality is just great, but let's not get into the nitty-gritty of Christianity. A megastar like Gibson, using his art to inspire while also speaking about his devout Christian beliefs, apparently irritates those desiring that religious people keep their views private.
In a ChristianityToday.com interview, Gibson was asked about striking a balance between Holy Scripture and his creative interpretation. He replied: "Wow, the Scriptures are the Scriptures. I mean, they're unchangeable, although many people try to change them. And I think that my first duty is to be as faithful as possible in telling the story so that it doesn't contradict the Scriptures." Declarations like this have led to the belittlement of Gibson by some critics. Meanwhile, most Christians appreciate and embrace such views.
As for charges of anti-Semitism, if one is going to accuse "The Passion of the Christ" of being anti-Semitic, then one has to extend the charge to the New Testament and Christianity in general because Gibson does a pretty good job at sticking to the Gospels, though taking some artistic liberties.
Similar to those who have misused the Gospels to justify attacking Jews, people hurling charges of anti-Semitism either do not understand or choose to ignore the teachings of Christianity. St. Paul wrote: "There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood." (Romans 3:22-25) The Apostle John added: "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:3)
Some Christians believe this film will bring people to the faith. I hope so. I have no doubt that "The Passion" will strengthen the belief of many who already are Christians.
After seeing this film, I will always have with me a visualization of the vastness of Jesus Christ's passion - in both the original sense of the word, that is, suffering and agony, and in the modern usage of strong love and affection. Lent may never be the same.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist for Newsday. Read this article on the Newsday website (link closed). Reprinted with permission of the author.