Perhaps the most beautiful of all artistic depictions of Christ’s suffering is Michelangelo’s Pietà. Yet its tenderness and tranquility can lull the imagination into overlooking the sheer physical horror that Christ endured.
Encountering the Story Anew
Students of that most mysterious of all relics, the Holy Shroud, have long researched in meticulous detail the secrets yielded by this haunting image: the bruising on the nose where Jesus was buffeted; the swollen thorax, as He struggled for breath; the fearful symmetry of the flagellation marks all over His torso and limbs, to name a few.
Now we have the much-publicized film by Mel Gibson to bring the truth of Christ’s last hours to mass film-going audiences and even available on DVD. The box office it generated last year was enormous, as are the attendant controversies: Is it gratuitously violent? Does it take liberties with the Gospels? Is it anti-Semitic? This powerful little book is designed to answer these and other questions that viewers of the film this Lent might have.
The Underlying Drama of Our Salvation
For many people around the world, the film [represents] their first encounter with the story of Christ’s Passion and death. Apart from its sheer visual power, what will those seeing it for the first time this year make of it? All the answers they might seek are to be found in the Guide. Yes, there is violence, particularly in the harrowing scourging scene, but crucifixion was a most cruel and prolonged form of punishment. Yes, the director does take creative license with the texts, but to deepen our understanding of the Gospel narratives rather than to distort them. Further, no one having seen the film could make the charge of anti-Semitism, for it makes it clear that Christ died for the sins of all (and Mel Gibson makes this point forcibly by filming his own hand driving in the first nail).
As the book explains, Satan is real. Although not mentioned in the Gospels as “stalking” Christ on the road to Calvary, the film is true to the underlying drama of our salvation, in which the devil is deeply implicated. Again, flashbacks to the Last Supper during the crucifixion itself make a subliminal link between the unbloody and the bloody sacrifice.
The book points out that the film, although heartily endorsed by other Christian denominations, is explicitly both Eucharistic and Marian. It is also true that victims of crucifixion would have only carried the crossbeam to the site of execution and that the nails would have entered the wrists (as the Shroud shows) rather than the hands; that he chose “art” before “fact” here demonstrates the director’s creative deference to a long tradition of Christian iconography.
Evangelize Yourself and Others
As well as clear, brief answers to obvious questions thrown up by the film, such as the age-old “Why did Jesus have to die?,” the book also includes an excellent chapter on “The Case for Christ,” examining and then refuting theories that He was a legend, liar, lunatic or “light and fluffy New Ager.” A further chapter puts forth the case for the claims of the Catholic Church. Finally, Part 4 asks the reader/filmgoer, “Where are you going?”
There are practical suggestions for this personal journey that point beyond the celluloid, the plush seats and the popcorn. Appendices include the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross and a comprehensive bibliography for the general reader. All this in only 86 pages. Bulk orders decrease the price.
Regardless of the cynics, Mel Gibson intended his film to evangelize to share his own deep, Catholic faith. This guide takes us beyond its raw emotion and challenges us to examine The Passion in the cool light of our reasoning faculty. Why not invite non-Christian friends to see the film with you and then give them a copy?
Francis Phillips is married with eight children and is a frequent book reviewer for Catholic publications in the UK. She is an arts graduate from Cambridge University and her name-day saint is Francis of Assisi hence the unusual spelling of her name.
This review appears here with the kind permission of Theotokos Catholic Books.
Editor's Note: As we follow the way of Lent this year, we are blessed to have this powerful movie as an aid for meditating upon the sufferings of Christ. To get the most from your viewing experience, read A Guide to the Passion. Better yet, use it for a Lenten study at your parish. With over one million copies sold, A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about The Passion of The Christ has become the definitive resource for group study on the Passion of Christ. Click here or call toll-free 800-376-0520.