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A Caution About "The Passion of the Christ"

Fr. Steven Kostoff

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There is no doubt where Mel Gibson stands in terms of faith:  he is a committed Roman Catholic who clearly believes that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God who gave His life up "for us men and for our salvation" on the Cross. Christians who share that basic perspective are very excited by the film and its openly "faith-based" perspective. We are tired of Hollywood's secularism, skepticism and thinly-veiled atheism. 

The film earned an "R" rating due to the graphic violence that surrounds the death of Christ on the Cross. Gibson unflinchingly depicts the sufferings of Christ. That must have been a difficult decision, because it restricts many young people from seeing the film. "Historical realism," we are told, is important.

Is graphic violence consistent with the Gospel accounts?  The Gospels are remarkable for their restraint, reticence, and sobriety when describing  the death of Christ on the Cross. They are notable for what they do not describe. Jesus is said to have been "beaten," "scourged," and, of course, "crucified." But there is no mention of the bloody details. In fact, there is no mention of the "blood of Christ" in the entire Passion narrative with the exception of the blood that came forth from the side of Christ when He was later pierced.

Perhaps this restraint is necessary to free us from an emotional, visceral response that would obscure the profound mystery of the "Lord of glory" being crucified for our sakes. Tthis does not mean that the Gospels resemble a detached "journalistic" approach. The genuine pathos and drama in the Passion narratives can be overwhelming.

Restraint and reticence is precisely what we see in the icon of the Crucifixion. The icon does not depict a bloody, mangled and tortured body, just as there is no such description in the Gospels. Rather, it depicts a serene and majestic Christ on the Cross - precisely the "Lord of glory" who is being "lifted up" for the salvation of all. This portrayal is meant to invoke contemplation rather than emotion.

The depiction of a tortured and bloody Christ hanging from the Cross does not develop until well into the Medieval period of Western Christian history. This is usually described as the new emotionalism of the Gothic period. The greatest expression of this must be Matthais Grunwald's famous Crucifixion, almost unbearable to look at for the agony there depicted. Western Europe was convulsed with plagues and ubiquitous death and so began to identify with the suffering and tortured Christ.

This then became a very developed area of medieval (Roman Catholic) piety from that day to the present - in least in more "traditional" circles. There was even an "order" that was devoted to contemplating each drop of blood shed by Christ, including counting the number of drops! At worst, this becomes sentimental piety with its strong appeal to the emotions and the "heart." (Perhaps there is a link here to the later devotion to the "sacred heart" of Jesus which is totally foreign to Orthodox piety).

Mel Gibson employs this perspective. He is a very traditionalist Roman Catholic, devoted to the Latin Mass (there will be Latin in the film, in addition to Aramaic). Gibson used the visions of a Roman Catholic (19th c.?) mystic, a woman who had a profound devotion to the "blood of Christ." The film may be more "subjective" and "poetic" than intended. The film will be very Roman Catholic. This is not meant critically or polemically; but to reveal perspective and context.

The Orthodox Church does not for one moment doubt or deny the horrible sufferings of Christ on the Cross. "One of the Holy Trinity" - the incarnate Logos - was crucified, and we know full well about the torturous horrors of crucifixion. Our Holy Week hymnography will allude to that suffering. We also believe that "the blood of God" (or "His own blood" - Acts 20:28) delivers us from our sins and bestows upon us the gift of salvation. The Epistle to the Hebrews, the book we read throughout Great Lent,  is all about the shed blood of Christ. We are not "docetic" (a heresy that basically denied that Christ actually suffering on the Cross).

However, the Orthodox Church - when not unduly affected by "Western influence" - has always followed the Gospels in being reticent and restrained in its liturgical tradition, theological and spiritual writing, and iconography when avoiding an emotional and overly pietistic account of the Crucifixion of the "Lord of Glory"  (1 Corinthians 2:8). The mystery of the Crucifixion has a theological dimension that should never be obscured by the truly human drama of the events leading up to and including the Crucifixion.

Copyright © 2004 Steven Kostoff. Fr. Steven Kostoff serves the Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 2/24/04

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