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March 13, 2004

The Same Now As It Was Then

Much commentary has been offered thus far on Mel Gibson’s masterful The Passion of the Christ. Many more commentaries will be written in the weeks and months and years ahead. Mr. Gibson has produced and directed a cinematic piece of art that will outlive him for centuries. Like Michelangelo’s Pieta, The Passion of the Christ will be moving those who view it for as long as a copy of it is available to watch.

I saw the movie on Saturday, March 6, 2004. It was everything I expected it to be. Having read much about the events surrounding Our Lord’s Passion and Death during my fifty-two plus years of life, I was neither shocked nor horrified by the graphic portrayal of what our sins caused Our Lord to suffer in His Sacred Humanity as He paid back the blood debt of our own sins that was owed to Him in His infinity as God. The Passion of the Christ is simply a moving and artful presentation of that which we meditate upon in the Sorrowful Mysteries of Our Lady’s Most Holy Rosary and in the Stations of the Cross. Indeed, the late John Henry Cardinal Newman’s meditations on the Stations of the Cross, which were used by Pope John Paul II on Good Friday in 2002, give a very, very graphic account of the cruelties our sins inflicted on Our Lord throughout the course of His Passion and Death. If anything, Cardinal Newman’s meditations on the Via Crucis go into details not covered in The Passion of the Christ about the physical hunger and thirst Our Lord had endured between the time of His arrest and the time of His formal sentencing to death by Pontius Pilate after he had let the “people” decide His fate. The book Doctor at Calvary has also been instrumental in helping Catholics to understand the physical dimensions of Our Lord’s sufferings. Even if one had not read Anne Catherine Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore, one would be well prepared by a life of study and prayer and meditation upon the Gospels themselves to see the best cinematic depiction of the events from the Agony in the Garden to the Resurrection that has ever been produced. I can see now why Dario Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos said that he would trade any number of his sermons on the Passion and Death of Our Lord for The Passion of the Christ.

As powerful as The Passion of the Christ is, however, in depicting the torture that our sins inflicted on Our Lord through the instruments of certain members of the Sanhedrin and the Roman soldiers, no book and no motion picture can capture the true torment of soul that Our Lord suffered during the events of His Passion and Death. Oh, we can watch James Caviezel play Our Lord so well as He underwent His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Behind the physical anguish, which included capillaries bursting in His head and His fingers (which is a real physiological phenomenon that can be produced during heightened states of anxiety), though, was the fact that Our Lord knew full well that He was going to come into contact in His Sacred Humanity with the very antithesis of His Sacred Divinity: sin. It was this thoroughly repulsive thought that caused Him to recoil and to ask the Father to take away from Him the chalice of suffering from which He had begun to drink. For as the Church teaches us traditionally, Our Lord saw all of the sins of every human being from the beginning until the end of time as He agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane while the three Apostles
who He had taken to the top of Mount Tabor to witness the Transfiguration–Peter, James, and John–were fast asleep. Only a few genuine, certified mystics have been able even to penetrate to a small degree the agony Our Lord suffered as He saw all our sins. Our puny, finite minds–clouded as they are by the vestigial after-effects of our sins and by our own disordered self-love–are simply not capable of fathoming what Our Lord suffered in His soul as the time approached for Judas Iscariot to give Him a “sign of peace” to betray Him to the Sanhedrin.

This aspect of Our Lord’s Passion is thus something that no visual aid can assist us with. We need to enter more deeply into prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament and to the Mother of God, who is so well portrayed in The Passion of the Christ, to have a fuller appreciation over the course of our lifetimes as to just how much each one of our sins cost the Divine Redeemer. No movie is a substitute for Eucharistic piety and total consecration to Our Lady’s Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart. Only prayer and good spiritual reading founded in prayer can move us to have just a tiny bit of insight into the dimensions of Our Lord’s Passion and Death that cannot be captured even in a masterpiece such as The Passion of the Christ.

That having been noted, there are so many ways in which The Passion of the Christ does move us to see ourselves in the various personages portrayed therein. Yes, the members of the Sanhedrin are portrayed accurately as sinister, calculating men who knew that Our Lord was God and who simply believed that it was a matter of expediency to get rid of Him. There is quite a contrast between the ease with which Caiphas and his sycophants rode to Golgotha on donkeys while Our Lord was being beaten mercilessly by the cruel, bloodthirsty, drunken Roman soldiers. We must remember, however, that it was our sins that caused the Sanhedrin to act in this way. How many times have our faces been sinister? How many times in our lives have we been calculating? How many times have we shaded the truth in order to justify ourselves and our desires? How many times have we sought the path of ready luxury when we could have embraced the crosses sent to us for our sanctification and salvation? Oh, no, don’t be smug about the calculating cruelty of the Sanhedrin. They were only doing what our sins–having transcended time–instructed them to do.

We are also Pontius Pilate, if we will be honest with ourselves. We try convince ourselves that we are not responsible for the state of the Church and of the world by means of our sins and hardness of heart, by means of spiritual lukewarmness and our failure to embrace penance and mortification. We wash our hands so easily in difficult circumstances when the demands of the Faith call us to stand up for Our Lord and His true Church instead of surrendering to the desire to be liked and respected by others no matter how much error and sin is promoted in the conversation taking place around us. Oh, yes, we should never kid ourselves. We have finger bowls besides us all the time, and we have used those finger bowls to say something along the lines of, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about this or that situation. Hey, what’s on television?”

Please God and His dear Blessed Mother, though, we play our part as the faithful disciples of Our Lord every time we hear Holy Mass. For it is the Mass that is the unbloody re-presentation of Calvary. Mr. Gibson did a superb job of weaving in scenes from the Last Supper (replete with English subtitles that give the proper translation from the Aramaic at the moment of the Transubstantiation of the bread and wine) into The Passion of the Christ. For while we can see ourselves in almost all of the characters portrayed in The Passion of the Christ, it is during Holy Mass that we are called are given the particular and paramount opportunity of being with Our Lady and Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Mary Magdalene–and all of the angels and the saints–as the one Sacrifice of the Son to the Father in Spirit and in Truth is offered at the hands of an alter Christus acting in persona Christi. The Mass transcends time. Although it takes place in a given place at a given time at the hands of a given priest, the Mass transports us back in time to Calvary and is at the same time a foretaste of eternal glories. This is spiritual food for meditation for a lifetime, which is why our love of Holy Mass must be intense and abiding.

Indeed, no small part of the artistic success of The Passion of the Christ is that it was conceived of and produced by a traditional Catholic. The Latin editio typica of the Novus Ordo Missae does not contain the fullness of the sense of the horror of sin that has been conveyed in the various Collects and Offertories and Secrets and Communions and Postcommunions found in the Immemorial Mass of Tradition. The Traditional Latin Mass is replete with the sense of the horror of sin, the inevitability of God’s judgment on our immortal souls, and the possibility that we could lose our souls for all eternity. It is not a reaffirmation of human goodness, containing ways in which a “presider” can select options for what is called the “Penitential Rite” in the new dispensation that omit almost any reference to sins, going so far as to let a priest put things in “these or other words.” Only the fixed, immutable nature of the Traditional Mass prepares a soul to meditate fully on the solemnity of Calvary, which was not a joking matter at all. No matter Mel Gibson’s position on sedevacantism, he has been exposed throughout his entire life to the fullness of the Catholic Faith. No, he admits that he didn’t live the Faith well at all times. He’s got lots of company there, I can assure him, present company included. However, his constant exposure to the solemnity and reverence and permanence and glory contained in the Mass of Tradition prepared Him to produce an epic that will make many Catholics have a greater appreciation for the horror of sin, the great, incomparable love that led Our Lord to suffer for us, the mercy He extended to His executioners–namely, each one of us–and the mercy we are supposed to give others as readily as it is extended to us by Him in the Sacrament of Penance.

Mel Gibson admits to being influenced by Anne Catherine Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is significant. You see, only a handful of Protestants would be familiar with this book. Protestants, especially of the Lutheran and Calvinist strains, took the corpus of the Divine Redeemer off of the Cross. After all, Calvary happened once. If you subscribe to Lutheranism and its offshoots then you believe that you are “saved” by the profession of faith you make on your lips and in your heart in the Name of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. No need to help Christ redeem the world. No need to suffer with Him. No need to look at Him Crucified to see that He permits us an opportunity to help Him redeem the world by paying back the debt that we owe as a result of our forgiven mortal sins and our attachment to our venial sins. As there is no Purgatory, there is no need for us to offer up our sufferings for the good of the Poor Souls, no need to have the merits of our sufferings applied to others here in the Church Militant on earth. And as Our Lady is shunted off to the side as an irrelevancy, then who needs to be consecrated to her Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart and offer up their sufferings through her to her Divine Son? Those of the Calvinist strain believe in a doctrine of predestination that signifies the arbitrariness of God; their “worship services” are simple, symbolic of the “purity” of their faith. No need for a Crucifix for them. And as all but a handful of high Anglicans reject Sacred Tradition as one of the two sources of Divine Revelation, anything other than Sacred Scripture is simply unreliable to use a means of meditating on the events of Our Lord’s Passion and Death. Thus, the insights given Anne Catherine Emmerich by Our Lord would not be known and hence would not be used by a Protestant contemplating a motion picture about Our Lord’s Passion and Death.

The Passion of the Christ, therefore, can be a powerful tool to assist Catholics in understanding more about their Faith–and in leading Catholics to the glories of the Traditional Latin Mass. It can be a powerful took to help Protestants understand what they have been missing in their sanitized, “purified” church buildings and in their services that are shorn of all redemptive power. The movie can help them see that Our Lady was with Our Lord at all times, that Saint Peter called her “Mother.” She is our Blessed Mother. This aspect of The Passion of the Christ alone might move many Protestants to fall in love with Mary, and it is a short step from there to converting to the true Church. Our Lady wants to lead all souls to the true Church her Son founded upon the Rock of Peter, the Pope.

It must also be remembered that The Passion of the Christ can even be a great aid to helping to convert at least some of the people from whom Our Lord took His Sacred Humanity, the people of the Old Covenant that was superceded by the New and Eternal Covenant of the Passover Lamb Who was slain for us so that we could pass over from our old lives of sin to the possibility of eternal life with Him for all eternity. Saint Paul prophesied in his Epistle to the Romans that the conversion of the Jewish people would occur before the end of the world. Despite all of the protests from some Jewish leaders who hate the Sacred Divinity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ just as much as the members of the Sanhedrin did nearly two millennia ago, Mel Gibson may just have planted the seeds that will lead some Jewish people over the next years and decades to respond the promptings of the graces won for them and for all of us by the shedding of Our Lord’s Most Precious Blood on Calvary to find their way home to Rome.

Indeed, as powerful as The Passion of the Christ is, we must remember that those who view it must have the grace to see it for what it is. Just as there are different levels of appreciation for the glory of the Beatific Vision among the souls of the just in Heaven (depending upon the degree to which they loved God in this life), so, too, is it the case that even among believing, practicing Catholics there will be different levels of appreciation of what is portrayed so movingly in The Passion of the Christ. And those outside of the Sheepfold of Christ that is the Catholic Church need grace to be open to realizing the truth of what I have written above: that only a Catholic could have produced this motion picture. Thorough-going unbelievers need grace to see the film as not simply a mindless portrayal of violence but as the penultimate effect of our sins upon the Word Who became Flesh and dwelt amongst us. Those who are not open to God’s grace and Our Lady’s prayers, therefore, will be as blind to the truths contained in The Passion of the Christ as the people who comprised the crowd that called out for Our Lord’s Crucifixion and who jeered Him as He hung on the gibbet that is the Holy Cross. We must pray especially for those who have walked out after seeing the movie being unmoved by what they have seen. This is an eerie reminder of those who “passed by” Calvary and simply went about their business, as most of the world does as only a relative handful of people find their way to the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday. In many ways, you see, the reaction to The Passion of the Christ of those who lack grace or who are not open to it is the same now as was the reaction of those who were indifferent or otherwise unmoved by the events of Our Lord's Passion nearly two millenia ago.

We must therefore pray for everyone who has seen or who will see The Passion of the Christ so that they will be open to respond to God’s grace and to Our Lady’s maternal prompting to lead them safely home to eternity through the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. For being moved on a emotional level is one thing; responding to God’s grace and Our Lady’s prayers is another. It is none other than the devil himself who wants to work against the conversion of all people to the Catholic Church.

We must live the events of the Passion and the Death of Our Lord every day of our lives. This is being written in the midst of Lent, which is a wonderful time to see this motion picture time and time again. We must fortify ourselves as consecrated slaves of Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart to detach ourselves from the passing things of this world, to unite ourselves more readily with the Cross of the Divine Redeemer, to assist at Holy Mass daily if possible, to prostrate ourselves in prayer before Him in His Real Presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament, and to get ourselves on a regular basis to the hospital of Divine Mercy that is the confessional. And it is during the great season of Lent that we are called to make the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross. As the Stations are portrayed so beautifully, save for the Eighth Station of the Cross, in The Passion of the Christ, we can pray them now perhaps with greater clarity and fervor than ever before. For this we should say an Ave Maria for Mel Gibson  and those who worked with him on this epic every day for the remainder of this Lent.

Pledging ourselves to keep close to Our Lady during the remaining days of Lent and during all of the days of our lives, may we see in the events of her Divine Son’s Passion and Death a summary of our own lives. For if persist in a state of sanctifying grace until the moment of our dying breaths, then our bodies will rise up incorrupt and glorious on the Last Day. We will rise up to a new and glorified life as the Saviour did on Easter Sunday, manifesting the fruit of His victory over sin and death on the wood of the Holy Cross.

Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.

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