Criticism of the recently released movie The Passion of the Christ has revealed a wide spectrum of expert opinion on such matters as the degree of suffering Jesus could have endured before dieing, how much blood would have actually flowed during and after His scourging, what language the Roman soldiers were most likely to have spoken, and the degree of influence the Sanhedrin might have had with Pontius Pilate. The most loaded question of all being, of course, who, in purely historical terms, was responsible for Jesus' death? The candidates are Judas, the Jewish leadership and those who followed their urging, Pilate and the Roman Army and Jesus himself or perhaps some combination of all of the above.
Some critics point to Mel Gibson's personal and possibly inherited right of centre convictions relative to the Roman Catholic Church in an effort to demonstrate that the movie ignores all modern scholarship and is therefore based upon ignorance.
I am inclined to think that while the movie is surely not beyond valid scholarly criticism, much of what we are reading and hearing emanates from a number of egocentric academics disturbed by the impact this movie is having. Why are they upset? I strongly suspect that it is simply because this neophyte upstart Mel Gibson is leaving a footprint larger than all of theirs combined.
There now exists yet another school of thought which promotes the opinion that there is substantial evidence of politically motivated massaging of the Gospels either by the original authors or by the early Church. This shaping and even distortion of the truth is thought to be at the heart of our current "misunderstanding" of "the way it was". If we are speaking of distortion of essential elements the ramifications become enormous. I have yet to be convinced.
Truth is not the sole property of those possessed of lengthy c.v.'s and prestigious degrees. God does not work that way. Truth is often most clearly manifested through the humble, prayerful, faithful members of Christ's body, be they men or women, young or old, rich or poor, wise or foolish, brilliant or otherwise. It is to them that I extend this invitation to enter into the Gospel scenario, into my comfort zone. Allow me then to share a few thoughts on Holy Week some of which, though they arise from between the lines, remain, I believe, true to the spirit of the Gospels.
He had warned them more than once to be prepared for His betrayal and execution. Most of them had ignored His warning. It simply made no sense to them, especially now in the light of His triumphant entry into Jerusalem. "Had the public not acclaimed Him as their King?"
Repeatedly He had publicly shamed and embarrassed the religious leaders to the point where they feared to challenge Him lest they lose even more ground. They feared and hated Him as they could feel their power and authority slipping from their hands. To some extent it was understandable. They were not evil men but their precious structures, priorities and attitudes were in dire need of reform. This they could not accept. SOUND FAMILIAR?
It was known that the chief priests, the scribes and the elders of the people joked while others pondered more seriously, that perhaps some of the most influential leaders had themselves fallen under this man's spell and secretly believed him to be the Messiah. Needless to say this kind of gossip was intolerable and so they determined to act as soon as possible. But as Matthew tells us in his chapter 26..."They said, 'not on the festival day (Passover) lest perhaps there should be a tumult among the people.' For they feared the people."
If Judas were functioning in the Church today, we would probably characterize him as an excellent administrator, very practical but not too pastoral! He probably led the chorus of derision when the penitent woman anointed Jesus with very expensive oil that could have sold for a lot of money. He was, no doubt, stung by Jesus' subsequent rebuke. Judas might well have been the brightest and the most sophisticated of the twelve. No less ambitious than the others, he likely was more realistic in his appraisal of how the wind was blowing and so he did what Jesus always knew he would do. He switched sides. He abandoned ship. There were prophecies to be fulfilled and Judas because of choices freely made would be the one who would, I presume unknowingly, facilitate that end. (Psalm 40, verse 10 and Zacharias Chapter 11, verse 12.) When they all gathered for the traditional Paschal Supper, Judas was with them. He was ready to honour his contract with the authorities, but first, being a practical man, he would have his supper.
I sometimes wonder about the scene just prior to The Last Supper. I know it was a large upstairs room, well furnished for the purpose, but did they all arrive at the same time or were some there early to make sure that all was in order? Did Jesus stand around and chat with this group and that individual before they settled down? I imagine so. It would have been out of character for Him to delay His entry until the last moment for dramatic effect.
Once they were settled around the table, Jesus told them how happy He was to finally be able to share this holy meal with them here in The Holy City. Though He spoke of His imminent death and the fulfillment in The Kingdom in almost the same breath, the message they got was that He was on a roll and victory was around the corner and that meant that they were about to be assigned their long anticipated positions of influence and power. They were to be commissioned at last! They were still not getting it! This night would bring them positions of little influence and no power. They were to be commissioned but as servants not as potentates. Who can blame them? Even now there are inhabitants of Cathedrals and rectories who still don't get it! They were on a high. Once again they set about bickering among each other over their prospects in The Kingdom. Jesus listened to them and silently prayed for them. Prayers which would sustain them during the days to come and indeed for the rest of their tumultuous lives. Soon the official Paschal Supper was over. All had been done according to the strict ritual with which they had been familiar since childhood.
Judas was ready to make his move. Jesus had been watching him. Judas, perhaps the most respected of all by his peers. Judas, ever balanced, ever serious. No nonsense Judas who had long since lost respect for the others and perhaps for Jesus in so much as He had chosen them and forced him into their company. Judas the prudent, the careful, was ready to make his move. Judas the sinner, the lost sheep prepared to silently leave the hall and I am sure that Jesus' eyes must have welled with tears. Tears of love, tears of sadness.
But Jesus made His move first. He got up and put a towel around his waist. To the amazement of all including Judas who was now frozen in his place at table, he began to systematically wash their feet. This was generally an act performed by a slave for a master. The intended message, backed up by a commentary was that though they expected otherwise they were in fact being called to leadership through service. To this day the hallmark of true Christian leadership at whatever level is service. No one had or has a better right to demand this than The Man For Others Himself.
Stunned, they all went along with this bizarre behaviour but when Jesus got to Peter he got what he expected. Peter looked down at his scarred and weather beaten feet, usually awash in fish guts and netting, and nose to nose with Jesus growled... "no way!" Some of the others barely contained their mirth. The silence must have been electric as the fisherman tried to outstare the carpenter. Andrew wanted to intervene but had the sense not to do so. No one moved. The Son of God continued to kneel before His faithful, loving, confused servant ..."If you stop me now, it will be all over between us!" Peter's heart was thumping like a bass drum. When he caved in it was all at once. "Very well Lord, you win! ...my feet, my hands, my head ...whatever you say!" And that was that.
Judas was getting more and more restless. He wanted to leave but, in a way and at a time when he could go unnoticed.
The apostles no sooner recovered from the foot washing episode when Jesus dropped another bomb. He was about to be betrayed. Not in the future but now and unbelievably, by one of them! They expressed shock and denial and even made space between each other so as to avoid contamination. Judas felt the blood drain from his head. He grew pale. He had not anticipated this. Had he himself been betrayed? Perhaps by the high priests or their servants? No, that would be counterproductive. He decided to get it over with..."Is it I Lord?" Can you hear him, his voice modulated and calm? Later on Jesus would be asked by Pilate... "Are you a king?" His answer would be as now... "You have said it." Did they all hear it? Some of them must have done so. Imagine the tension, the drama of the moment as Judas rose to his feet and headed for the stairs. I can imagine Peter, who missed very little, and perhaps James and John getting up to go after him, to deal with him and Jesus restraining them with a sad shake of his head. How could Judas after three years of intimate contact betray Jesus? It is hard to believe, but then how could any one of us, after many years of Christian fellowship, receiving the Eucharist and being absolved of our sins, trade it all for wealth, fame, power, perceived freedom, or whatever? ...It happens every day.
So far it had been quite a night. It was not yet over. The minute Judas was out on the street Jesus' mood became less solemn, more joyful. His long sigh of relief was heard by all present. Later that same evening He would kneel in the garden and know and feel the horror of the day to follow. But for now He was happy. He had been looking forward to the approaching moment. He was about to leave them. In spite of their relative ages, they were like His children. They would miss Him and He wanted to comfort them but not to lull them into a false sense of security. He also wanted them to be a comfort to each other. He could not have expressed such thoughts had Judas been present.
He told them to love each other as He loved them; and that such was His union with them that in loving each other they would indeed be loving Him. In a few moments He would show them how to proclaim and maintain that union, that communion, that Holy Communion.
For the first time, He spoke the words and performed the actions so familiar to Catholics in every corner of the world. We call them the words of consecration. "Take and eat, this is my body... take and drink, this is my blood." They sensed that so much of what He had done and said in the past was somehow coming together as one by one, they did as He requested and entered into a flesh and blood relationship with the Son of God. They were now as closely related to Him as to their own blood relatives and to their spouses for had He not described the marriage bond in the same terms?
Did they fully understand? No, but they trusted Him and they believed and when He told them that He wanted them to continue to bring this about in His name and in His memory so that this incredible union could be made available to all generations to come, they promised to do so.
"THE BODY OF CHRIST".........................................."AMEN"
He had finished speaking and the crowd was slowly breaking up into little groups of families and neighbours. The murmur of conversations filtered up the hillside as children, earlier hushed by the stern glances of their parents, now gave vent to their energies and raced after each other, laughing and skipping and calling. In the distance the lake sparkled as if enjoying the late afternoon sun.
Jesus watched the children at play and his face easily creased into a broad smile as one of the children beckoned to a friend, urging him. "Let's ask the teacher himself ...perhaps he will tell us." James and John handed their Master a small woven basket containing bread and dried fish and placed a flask of cool wine at his elbow. "We will leave you to your two friends," they said lightly. Jesus whispered His thanks and turned His attention toward the little boy and girl standing, uncertain, before Him. "Come my children, sit down here beside me. Are you hungry? ...here have some food, I have plenty for us all." Delighted to be so treated they crouched down beside Him. The boy glowed with pride as Jesus placed His arm around his lean shoulders. The girl, his twin sister, not to be outdone, moved in a little closer and there was an arm for her too.
Jesus forgot His own hunger as He watched His lunch disappear from His lap. Jesus loving and being loved was satisfied. "Sir ...where do you come from?" ... "From Nazareth, do you know where that is?" His question was ignored. "Do you like being a teacher?" It was the little girl, her brother was too busy chewing. "Yes, Yes I do" came the reply. "We heard you teaching the grownups just now but we couldn't understand ...she looked at Jesus who nodded and encouraged her to continue... "Well, you said that we should not only love our family and friends but also our......"
The unmistakeable voice of an anxious mother could be heard, "Come children, it grows dark, we must go home ...come, come quickly." In a flash they were running down the slope, their question forgotten. An unspoken blessing followed them and Jesus was alone.
He is thinking of them now as He tries to draw a tortured breath. He longs to wipe away the blood that is trickling down over His eyes. Below Him a blurred fist is shaking and a rasping voice behind it challenges Him to come down from the cross. "Some day," thinks Jesus, "perhaps even today, you will know just how easy it would be for me to do just that and then, if you are humble enough, you will know why I didn't ...but then again you might be one of those who will never understand ...Oh how I thirst!"
A young soldier, a fresh recruit is visibly moved and suggests that someone give Him a drink. "You will understand," thinks Jesus. "You will see the light for you are now giving me that for which I thirst the most."
His thoughts go racing on. "John ...John, take my mother home. She has suffered long enough with me ...she understands ...she knows that my suffering is the ultimate, the final proof of my love for all. What more can I give? Before it is done I must suffer every human anguish ...pain, fear, loneliness and, yes, even despair. Only then will my sacrifice be complete. It was too much to bear ...He cries out once more for all to hear, "My God, why have YOU forsaken me?"
His arms, pinned and lifeless, Jesus longs to hug those two little children who sat beside Him on the hillside last Spring ...they will soon have their question answered.
He had cured their sick, blessed their children, raised their dead, fed them when they were hungry, consoled them when they wept. He had offered them the way, the truth and the life ...Himself. And now, bleeding and twisted, He looks down on them ...surely the time has come to curse them, to demand divine justice in all its potent fury! "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do!"
"Poor Peter, hiding with the others, weak and terrified. Soon they will be strong. My strength will flow into them. They will become my hands and my feet ...They will follow me."
A few yards away He could make out John ...the only one ...standing to one side, bewildered and afraid but still there. Beside him was Mary, His own dear Mother, her face shielded by a thin veil. Once again the sight of her suffering brought renewed anguish. "If only she could have been spared this day, and yet, by her presence, by her suffering, she was offering her son ...she was one with him ...unique among the children of Adam and Eve ...full of Grace." Mary pressed her tear stained face against the Apostle's shoulder, "God of Jacob! Has He not loved enough?"
"Father!" ...The crowd grows silent and expectant. His voice is suddenly, strong and vibrant... "Into your hands I commend my spirit." His head falls forward. His body relaxes and slumps. Mary and John exchange glances. Is it really over? As if in answer the earth begins to tremble, the sky grows dark and all of nature protests.
Thirty three years ago she had tenderly wrapped the infant in soft white cloth and now a full grown man, His limbs pale with death is placed before her, cold and empty, His life and warmth completely exhausted...poured out, as it were, into a vast reservoir which would be tapped by all future generations until the end of time. Once more she sees that the sacred body gets properly wrapped but this time there is no warm crib waiting, only a silent tomb.
The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus is, essentially a love story. It is a story about a love that is immeasurable. So complete, so intense, so irrevocable, as to be off any scale. To speak of measuring the infinite is an oxymoron. The same applies to understanding it or appreciating it. It is a story of God's love for us. This implies His respect for us. Love finds its definition in "giving" and its perfection in giving without restraint. It is a term appropriately used only between rational beings. One cannot truly "love" animals or ice cream because love also implies a rational object capable of choosing freely, not purely instinctively, to accept or reject the offering of the other.
God's love for us is one with His respect for the free will with which He has seen fit to endow us. This freedom is at once at the heart of our dignity and of our personal responsibility.
Since the essence of love is to be found in giving, in emptying oneself for the sake of others, its antithesis is to be found in taking. Not receiving, not accepting but taking. A taking that expands into relentless selfishness and the worship of oneself, ones possessions and ones gratification of unbridled appetites.
What does this mean when it comes to our response to divine love? What remedy is there, what form of redemption is there for us when we respond to God not by receiving and giving but by taking? If the rejection is complete then our only hope is a change of heart due to the constancy of God's urgent courting. But what if we are speaking of a partial or occasional self- indulgence? In other words a response characterized by some giving but not enough and by some taking but not too much.
To us God sends His prophets, His saints and His servants but somehow that has been a Humpty Dumpty story! Remember how all the king's horses and all the king's men were unable to put Humpty Dumpty together again? Well our king did not give up. He became one of us in the person of Jesus. In the person of Jesus He touched us, He healed us (put us back together again) ...in the person of Jesus He taught us and most important of all, He identified with us and in doing so expanded the concept of our loving Him to include our love for each other ...they are one and the same. He raised us up from the level of creatures to that of brothers and sisters so that, like Jesus, we can address God as Father ...not just Creator but Father! Just stop for a moment and think about it.
How much does Jesus who is God love us? That question can be rephrased to read, how much did He give, where did He draw the line? You know the answer. He emptied Himself. He drew no line. He did this within the framework of history that is, after all, our environment. Many people played differing parts from Judas to Peter, from Caiphas to Joseph of Arimathea, from Pilate to the Centurian who believed but Jesus remained the central figure as He willingly surrendered His life in the name of not just "love" but limitless love. Furthermore, Jesus' love is, by its infinite nature, timeless and is therefore "now" just as much as "then."
Love and forgiveness go hand in hand. With such a demonstration of love can we doubt His willingness to forgive anyone who cares to be forgiven, restored, redeemed?
As love and forgiveness went hand in hand to Calvary, so too did love and suffering. These two have always been fellow travelers but it was Jesus, on Good Friday, who blessed that union. He left no question as to the potential value of suffering. In so far as it is rationally endured it has the quality of gift BECAUSE HE ENDOWED IT WITH THAT QUALITY. He gave value to that currency.
As you well know this love story has a happy ending. Just as He had promised He rose from the dead, tied up a few loose ends and sent us His Holy Spirit. But wait a moment, this cannot be the end because this is our story too. There are many more chapters to be written and we are the co-authors.