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Should Orthodox Christians See "The Passion of the Christ?"

Fr. John Manuel

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A Greek Orthodox priest reflects on "The Passion of the Christ."

To see or not to see?

The conclusions that a person draws from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" depend on the assumptions that are brought to it. If you look for anti-Semitism, you will find it. If you look for too much violence, you will find it. If you look for questionable theological or scriptural assertions, you will find it.

If you can get past the hype that seeks to discredit this film and maintain an open mind however, you will also find Isaiah's Suffering Servant and Paul's crucified Lord portrayed. I watched the film twice. Some of the images of scourging and other punishments were hard to endure. But if you bear them you may grasp the Lord's conquest of death and His Resurrection in a greater measure.

What about the violence?

The films depicts the last twelve hours of our Lord's life when He was humiliated, scourged, and crucified. These depictions are grotesque, painful, and heart wrenching but not gratuitous or masochistic. The real crucifixion was certainly even worse. The Romans intended crucifxion to be horrifying. They never crucified other Romans, only people subjugated to Roman rule which helped them maintain power for so many centuries.

It is understandable why the violence would hold some people back from seeing the film. Their decision should be respected. For mature audiences and for many Christians however, viewing the film will help reveal what the Lord endured. As a father of three teenagers, I know that teens see far worse. "Lord of the Rings" for example, is macabre and violent -- its "Best Picture" award not withstanding. Younger children, of course, should not attend.

To blame or not to blame?

Is the movie anti-Semitic? I didn't see it. Instead culpability rests everywhere: the nervous Jewish leaders, the frenzied mobs, the sadistic Romans, the cowardly Pontius Pilate.

Nevertheless, it is understandable why some Jewish commentators objected to the characterizations. The Chief Priest and Pharisees are presented with rough speech and sinister looks. Gibson may have done better to present a more rounded view of these villains. At the same time, the portrayal of how evil intentions can transform ordinary persons into doers of great evil was very effective.

Orthodox Christians should remember that the same impression could be conferred through the Gospels (especially St. John), or the hymnology of Holy Week. But is the intention really to cast Jews in a bad light, or to indict corrupt leaders and blind followers?

A word on poetic license and iconography

This film is not a verbatim account of the Gospel narrative. It employs considerable poetic license. It depicts the Lord as a handsome young carpenter, the devil as an androgynous tempter, the conquest of death as Satan chained to hell, the Resurrection through a rolling stone, and more.

These scenes are not scriptural or traditional in the sense that they share a close correspondence to either scripture or tradition. They ought not, however, dissuade an Orthodox Christian from viewing the film.

Orthodox artists and writers do the same thing. For example, the Holy Friday Lamentations voice the laments of the grief-stricken Theotokos (Virgin Mary) at the death of Jesus. Where are such words found apart from the hymns? The Orthodox are accustomed to hearing the phrase, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us," an exercise in poetic license if ever there was one, yet entirely appropriate when understood in its proper context.

We see the same liberties taken in iconography. For instance, some icons show the Lord wearing a crown, which he certainly never wore, to reveal He is King. The Resurrection icon shows the Lord pulling Adam and Eve out of the doors of Hell, which no one has ever witnessed, to show that Christ conquers death. The liberal use of imagery is wholly Orthodox, as long as the message is appropriate.

Atoning blood or much ado about suffering?

Some Orthodox critics argue that the movie is inappropriate because it focuses too much on the suffering instead of the Resurrection of the Lord. They criticize the Roman Catholic "Atonement" theology.

The movie certainly reflects Gibson's Old Catholic background, as seen in the Via Dolorosa sequence which matches the "Stations of the Cross." The emphasis on blood is reminiscent of the "Sacred Heart of Jesus" and other Medieval expressions of the Roman Catholic faith.

It is true that there is a strong emphasis upon the Lord's suffering, but it's a mistake to focus on the suffering alone. Interspersed throughout the movie are theologically sound insights expressed in short flashbacks that reveal the truth about the Lord's willing and necessary death. For example:

  • He chooses to die and does so voluntarily;
  • He commits His Body and Blood to eternal remembrance (Eucharist);
  • He lays down His life for us (no greater love has anyone than to give his life);
  • He commands us to love one another;
  • He dies as an act of love, to provide a place for us;
  • He provides the Way, the Truth, and the Life;
  • He provides the only way to the Father.
  • He vexes the devil and conquers death;
  • He rises from the dead.

To the Orthodox believer, these observations are very familiar because they form the central tenets of the Orthodox Christian faith.

Though we are to walk in the light of the Resurrected Christ, we must remember that the way to eternal life is often preceded by a life of persecution, and sometimes death. Even the Orthodox marriage service, a joyous event, is soberly vested with the crowns of martyrdom. We are blind to our own tradition if we do not recognize this dimension of our faith.

Further, the focal point of every Church, the Holy Altar, is seen at one and the same time as a place of remembrance, a tomb, a throne, and Resurrection. It houses the relics of martyrs to remind us that the Church is built upon the one sacrifice of Christ, and aided by the sacrifices of other faithful Christians throughout the ages.

This knowledge of suffering joins us with other Christians rather than setting us apart from them. All Christians share in Christ's death and ultimate victory.

Does the film show enough about the Resurrection?

Some argue that the film is too quiet about the Resurrection. The Resurrection takes up only a few minutes in the film but its a fitting capstone to the otherwise draining experience. Why just a few minutes? Maybe the conquest of death exceeds our ability to portray it. Even the Gospels, while boldly proclaiming the Resurrection, describe it with few words and great reticence. How would the Resurrection be depicted without looking spooky, without a hokey mix of special-effects?

Orthodox or not?

The movie shows the grittiness and internal strength of this Man whom we worship as Lord and Master of our lives. It shows how Christ withheld the power that could stop this brutality -- itself an act of enormous strength -- to voluntarily take death upon himself. He identifies fully with mankind, even to the point of carrying our sins into oblivion.

From my perspective the film is very Orthodox, even though I understand why some people might disagree. I thank Gibson for displaying the courage of his faith in creating this beautiful film. It was good to see The Lord (as well as His mother), presented in heroic terms.

Like or dislike

People ask: did you like the movie? The question is meaningless. The issue is not one of like or dislike, but acceptance or rejection. I see it as a very human work that courageously tells the story that has captivated us for millennia.

I strongly recommend it for some. Others who may incur injury by the graphic nature of the film should stay home. This is a pastoral recommendation since each soul must be attended to individually.

The enduring question

The real question is not who is to blame (the misguided focus of too many media types), but who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Why is He such a lightening rod? Why does He both unite and divide us? Who was this person? A man? God? Both God and Man?

Copyright 2004 John Manuel. Fr. John Manuel is a priest at Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Richmond, Virginia. This essay was distributed to members of a college fellowship and other groups that Fr. Manuel pastors.

Posted: 3/4/04



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