“the real Passion”
“I want people to see Christ, not me.” –Jim Caviezel “The Passion of the Christ”
“Sometimes, I forget.” –Dave Irish, “Sometimes I Forget,” What Matters Most
“People forget, they forget they’re hiding...” –Pete Townsend, The Who, “Eminence Front”
My biggest problem with the Gospel has always been the words. Words were never enough to fully convey to me the sacrifice, the torture, the physical pain, the spiritual test and The Passion of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior.
Coming from an aspiring writer like myself, it’s high treason. My entire life’s been mostly about trying to convey a thing, an event, a person, a feeling, a thought, a being ... into words others can readily understand, embrace and remember with fondness, enlightenment and comfort.
Truth be told, in that specific regard, I’m an abject failure. Others can convey a myriad of complex realities in one or two succinct paragraphs, dot the “i”s, cross the “t”s, remember when it’s “it’s” or “its,” no film adaptation necessary. I envy them their specificity, their laser-like ability to zero in on the crux, because my tendency – as a former bi-lingual Korean immigrant and a stunted eight-year-old in grade scope – is to throw every close synonym I can think of right on the spot until ... close enough; otherwise known as the extravagant use of verbosity.
When I accepted Christ into my life in my high school sophomore year, I did so with only a mere glimpse into what He did for me. I read the Bible from front to back, memorized the order of the books in the New Testament, sat up nights pondering the symbolic, parabolic meanings of Paul’s churches and the angel’s revelations.
Prior to and since, I’d watched every TV and film version of any part of the Bible, from Charleton Heston’s Moses to the sacrilege of “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “The Last Temptation Of Christ.”
Despite my best attempts at reading between the lines, borrowing able translations from biblical scholars, letting my inspired, smitten imagination take over, the truth of those mysterious Gospels always eluded me.
I always came away feeling as if Jesus were a rude, sexist, beatific God wannabe, not the son of God who took away the sins of the world, no one comes to the Father but by me full of kindness and wisdom, and a chance at freedom from the shackles of this earthly bond.
What kind of Jesus could cause the Crusades, the power and collapse of the Catholic church, the evangelical crossroads, the great divide between Hollywood and regular people? Who is Jesus to command the seas, the skies, the multitudes known today as Christians like me?
It’s like skimming the Cliff Notes, midnight hours before the final exam, maybe squeaking by with a C-, but with absolutely no idea what I’ve learned, no context, forgotten with the next Homecoming game.
Unfortunately, the entertainment industry had no idea, either. The producers, directors and writers of film, play and TV either sentimentalized Jesus’s sacrifice or sacrileged it, Jesus in soft lighting, barely a scar rippling across his glowing skin, untouchable perfection, spirit born, spirit died, or Jesus all too human in a what-if game of simplistic, God envy, a man-made residual of Adam and Eve, bite deeper, bite more, make believe an X-rated fairy tale of avoidance therapy while the whores plunged their dildo johns deeper.
For one year I heard all about actor-turned-director Mel Gibson’s “The Passion (of the Christ)” multi-million-dollar production and the controversy surrounding it, mostly from the liberal Hollywood elite and the activists in the Jewish communities. These critics decried the excessive violence (what, no sex?) of a violent story, the anti-Semitism of a Jewish-based love story, and the faulty dangers of purporting one small heretical Catholic religious off-shoot in a story about a man viewed and punished as one lone heretic.
People heard more, and joined along, some personally attacking the motives of the movie’s creator, questioning his sanity, ridiculing his beliefs.
The only thing I heard in the raucous temple of my contemporary is the chance to finally witness the crucifixion as if I were standing right there close enough to smell His blood, His torn flesh, the urine and the feces and the vomit that most assuredly must have flowed from the wounds inflicted by the representatives of the entire human race, you, me, the buxom girl next door who would one day grow up to become a “Playboy” starlet. The more the people rallied against Mel Gibson and his “Passion” project, the more excited I got.
I readied myself to watch every scene, without flinching, looking away, burying my face in my hands, excusing myself to use the restroom—the maneuvers I usually pull whenever confronted with a movie (a person, an event) filled with unpleasant, ugly and violent acts. I’m the first to dive under the seats when the bullets fly or the sharpened blade strikes. I fight my bile back every time a rape scene attacks my fragile sensibilities. Harm to innocent children and the elderly? Forget it, I’m gone.
My maternal grandmother passed away from kidney failure back in my college years, and my own mother expected me to walk up to her cold, dead carcass and kiss its cold, dead rotting flesh. I refused to even give it a brief blink of my eye as I sat far away in the sixth row, daydreaming about a boyfriend, sailing on the high seas, making love in the moonlight after a lobster dinner.
Human beings recoil instinctively from that which confronts their basic mortality, which also explains the preternatural existence of addictive forms of distraction: chain-smoking, hitting the sauce, glory holes, afghans, soccer moms, Tupperware and Oscar parties, dress down in pajamas and get pedicures while getting down with two or three lovers and getting hammered at the latest Morton’s “Vanity Fair” diamond satin extravaganza.
It’s safer to discuss whether the sun will come up tomorrow or whether the Mariners have a chance against the Yankees this year, because those boring subjects keep us from thinking about the inevitable late at night when we can’t sleep for whatever reason.
Throw in the abyss fraught with the worst of humanity, and expect to be a lonely offender. Nobody, but nobody wants to willingly subject himself to experiencing, much less witnessing the cruelty of others upon an innocent, much less a person claiming to be the son of God come down from heaven to save men’s souls and give them one last chance before the final days when the savior the Jews have read about in their testaments really comes to end the injustices.
The difference between me and every fourth one of you, however, is I know my limits, enough’s enough, grow the fuck up, swallow my fear, stand up, be a man and face what I yearn to run from. Responsibility, duty, love compel me to go in Room 123 and stand by my husband’s side as he says “Bye, mom,” tears streaming, to a cold, dead rotting carcass propped up on the pillow, hair ghostly white, skin pallid and bleak with the strangled blood signs of early diabetes, her long sharp nails a youthful contrast over the shell of brittle sticks and torn tissue, lipless mouth wide open like a bird caught in a frozen time warp.
As a Christian yearning for final enlightenment, the fulfillment of decades of wondering what it’s like, I sat in that theater last night, four days after “The Passion’s” Wednesday, February 25th opening, readying myself to do the right thing and watch every second pass on the silver screen, because I owed it to Jesus Christ to do so.
Because otherwise, I’d never really know what those secondhand words really meant to me, to countless other Christians and still millions more yet to discover Him for themselves.
To read, “Yea, He died for our sins on that cross, so that we may be saved and have everlasting life,” only provides part of the picture, sanitized for your protection. To see the entire picture unfold before my very eyes, every gruesome detail, Aramaic and Latin, opera and verse, cries and whispers, bone crunching, skin piercing, however...
Several in the audience surrounding me flinched, turned away, cried into their loved ones’ shoulders quietly, boxes of Kleenex beside them emptied, grown men cowering in the midst of the hooked whips, their meager effort at respite from such relentless torture, the worst any of us could inflict and the worst endured. I could not.
So intent was I, that a real flow of tears eluded me. Only when Mother Mary – also unable to sustain constant witness – remembered Jesus as a young boy, fallen, she hurrying as a mother would to comfort his tears, then hurrying to her grown son, fallen again from the 150-lb. burden of that cross, face so bludgeoned with cuts and scrapes as to be nearly recognizable as thawed Hamburger Helper, to reassure him that she was still there... did I nearly break, remembering my own new-found motherhood and going there in the what-if.
Yes, this movie is violent, ugly and beautiful at once. It’s not too much. If anything, it’s too little. Mel Gibson proved merciful in the final shots, refusing to close-up on the nails spearing into Jesus’ flesh, skewing instead, sideways, hinting at spurts of blood jumping in the air. I deserved no such mercy.
I even suggested to a few church friends in attendance afterwards that the movie should’ve had smell-o-vision, to which they recoiled understandably. But they, and you, get my drift.
There’s a scene before the actual crucifixion where the Roman soldiers are brutally whacking away their various versions of cat ‘o nine tails into Jesus Christ’s back, turning him over, and starting in on his front, where I nearly had enough. It went on forever and forever, and I just couldn’t take anymore. At that point, more of Jesus the laughing, preaching, alive prophet would’ve added more of a reason to feel. Every time someone harkened back, to the Last Supper, to Mary Magdalene’s reprieve, to Mother Mary and Jesus’s early years joking around about his tall table invention, I wished Mel Gibson could’ve found some extra before time to insert more of those, to give us a successfully humanized Christ—the Christ so often lost amidst the holier than thou amens in the Bible.
But no matter. The movie accomplished its purpose, despite what the critics – who strangely but not coincidentally resemble the rabble-rousers in the temple calling for Christ’s crucifixion – mindlessly offer in defensive defiance, many refusing to even witness for themselves.
The lead actor, Jim Caviezel (“Frequency,” “The Thin Red Line”) suffered tremendously for his art, a 14-inch gash in his back from a mistake by an extra missing the board mark, a dislocated shoulder, hypothermia from hanging on the cross over a canyon for hours at a time in inclement weather, a lightning strike, headaches from the pain of the all-too-real feeling crown of thorns... well, the devout Catholic actor did pray to God for authenticity in every way, to know what it was like, to disappear completely and become Jesus for this movie, so that those watching would forget for two hours and 15 minutes that it was a Skagit County, Washington native playing a role and believe that it was indeed Christ.
I’d say so.
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