The Catholic Meaning of The Passion of The Christ

The main action in The Passion of The Christ (released today on DVD) consists of a man being horrifically beaten, mutilated, tortured, impaled, and finally executed. The film is grueling to watch — so much so that some critics have called it offensive, even sadistic, claiming that it fetishizes violence.

Is This Excessive Morbidity?

Pointing to similar cruelties in Gibson’s earlier films, such as the brutal execution of William Wallace in Braveheart, critics allege that the film reflects Gibson’s own unhealthy fascination with gore and brutality. Other critics, including some Christians, have gone still further, charging not only Gibson but certain forms of Christian piety with a morbid obsession with blood and death. For example, writing before the film’s release earlier this year, Evangelical pundit Michael Coren commented:

It’s certainly a relief to see an attempt at the grotesque reality of violent death rather than the diluted depictions of some film portrayals. But, again, with all due respect to Catholicism, there has in the past and to an extent still is a virtual blood cult within it. The medieval Church was obsessed with gore, and even today in southern Europe we see quite repugnant fetishes with sacred blood, holy blood, miracle-giving blood. If it’s European medievalism we’re seeing rather than death-dry, God-drenched ancient Judea, we could be in trouble. (National Post, August 21, 2004)

Remarks like these are almost refreshing in their directness regarding the cultural and religious prejudices underlying the objections. The objector is prejudiced against a form of piety that is foreign to him, and has the candor to acknowledge his anti-Catholic, anti-European, anti-medieval bias and Evangelical fastidiousness. (Though he does try to soften the blow with the clichéd phrase “With all due respect to Catholicism,” a meaningless trope only just this side of “Some of my best friends are…” in the annals of prejudice.)

How far does this indictment of certain forms of Christian spirituality go? Gibson’s film is hardly the first work of Christian art to be accused of excessive morbidity. Similar charges could be found against such devotional exercises as the Way of the Cross (or Stations of the Cross) and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary, which involve prolonged contemplation of the specifics of Christ’s suffering and death. Even the observance of Good Friday, or the display of a simple crucifix, has been viewed with suspicion and hostility by some both inside and outside the faith.

In its most extreme form, the charge of morbidity is laid at the feet of the Christian faith itself. Christianity has been described by its critics as “a religion of death,” a “necrophilic” faith system. Clearly, at some point objections of this sort must be regarded as a case in point of what the Scriptures call the “scandal” of the Cross. It is the Cross itself, the very suffering and dying of God made man, and the way Christians respond to this event in their faith and devotion, that is behind much of the religious and anti-religious controversy over the film’s brutality.

In the same way, much condemnation of The Passion amounts to thinly veiled anti-Christian sentiment. “Watching it is an act of self-flagellation,” fumes one critic. Well, what if it is? Mortification of the flesh has a long and venerable history in Christian spirituality.

Divine Mercy in The Passion

How can critics, even some Christians, look at The Passion of The Christ and see only senseless brutality rather than redemptive meaning? In part, it may be because some of them literally don’t know what they’re looking at.

Take a scene that is one of the film’s most inspired yet least observed moments, the centurion piercing the dead Christ’s side with a lance, releasing a flow of blood and water. In other depictions, the blood and water are often shown trickling or oozing down His side. Gibson, though, depicts a spray of blood and water gushing from Christ’s side and showering down on the startled centurion.

To some viewers, this shot may have looked like no more than a burst of gratuitous gore, just another moment of maximized violence drama from a violence-obsessed director. This, however, is to miss the inspiration of Gibson’s shot, which captures the droplets of blood and water in midair illuminated by a burst of sunlight from behind the cross, shining like red and white beams of light issuing from His side.

This shot is a clear visual allusion to the well-known Divine Mercy image, based on the visions of St. Faustina Helena Kowalska. This image depicts Christ with rays of red and white light emanating from His side. Here is the explanation of the red and white rays from Faustina’s own account of Christ’s words in the vision:

The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls… These two rays issued forth from the depths of My tender mercy when My agonized Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross…. Happy is the one who will dwell in their shelter, for the just hand of God shall not lay hold of him. (The Diary of Saint Faustina, nr. 299)

One doesn’t need to be familiar with St. Faustina or the Divine Mercy image in order to grasp the heart of the meaning of The Passion of The Christ. Viewers who have appreciated the film include non-Catholics, non-Christians, non-religious viewers, even agnostics and atheists.

However, critics who condemn the film without recognizing its basis in Western sacred art and spiritual tradition are condemning what they don’t understand. Those unfamiliar with the tradition of stylized grotesques and violent Passion imagery in the sacred art of Matthias Gruenwald, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Bruegel are apt to blame Gibson’s film for lacking well-developed characterizations and for focusing too much on brutality, rather than recognizing that nuanced character development is not always to the point in all forms of art, and that blood and gore in art was not invented by Hollywood.

The Perspective of Redemptive Meaning

To understand the brutality of Gibson’s Passion within the film’s own redemptive context, it is necessary to begin a full hour before the first blow at the pillar falls, in the opening scene in the Garden of Gethsemane.

As imagined here, Jesus’ agony in the garden harkens back to two earlier events in salvation history: the temptation in the wilderness, and the Garden of Eden. The agony in the garden and the temptation in the wilderness are the two ordeals at either end of Christ’s public ministry in which He was ministered to by angels, but Gibson’s film, like other recent dramatizations (including, e.g., the animated The Miracle Maker), omits the angels, instead depicting Satan returning to tempt Jesus, testing Him on the eve of His Passion just as he did at the outset of His public ministry.

This opening image of Satan there in the garden, tempting Jesus, the second Adam, recalls another scene from the opening chapters of the Scriptures, the temptation of the first Adam in another garden, Eden. Gibson even uses a literal serpent, strengthening the Genesis 3 resonance — and also, perhaps, alluding to The Last Temptation of Christ, perhaps the only other film that used a literal serpent in depicting Christ being tempted.

It may seem strange to think of the traditionalist Gibson alluding to Scorsese’s notoriously controversial film, the last major Jesus film before The Passion of The Christ. However, The Passion does seem to be consciously aware of the earlier film. (Jeffrey Overstreet of, among others, has noted that the soundtrack is overtly reminiscent of Last Temptation’s Peter Gabriel score.)

If Gibson did consciously re-use the serpent image, it wasn’t as an homage, but as a rebuttal. The most striking thing about the two serpent scenes is how they highlight two completely different ideas of what it meant for Jesus to be tempted. In sharp contrast to Last Temptation, where the confrontation between Jesus and the serpent ends inconclusively, Gibson decisively ends the temptation with Jesus quite literally putting His foot down in an unmistakable allusion of Genesis 3:15, a verse sometimes called the “protoevangelion” or “first gospel”: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he will crush your head, and you shall strike at his heel.”

The temptation scene also serves to establish the meaning, the purpose and goal, of everything that follows. Ironically, just as the temptations in the wilderness implicitly bear witness to Christ’s divinity (“If you are the Son of God…”), so here it’s the tempter’s insinuations that indicate the nature of Jesus’ mission: “Do you think you can bear the weight of the world’s sins? They aren’t worth this. The burden is too great. No man can bear it.”

These establishing lines, delivered in the opening scene, provide key context for the rest of the film. First, Jesus means to take upon Himself the weight or burden of our sins. Second, this will prove to be a hideous ordeal. Third, He accepts this ordeal out of love for us — that is, He rejects the tempter’s suggestion that mankind is “not worth this”; to Him, manifestly, we are.

“Enmity between You and the Woman”

The significance of Genesis 3:15 for The Passion of The Christ doesn’t end there. It can also be seen, less strikingly but more pervasively, in the film’s approach to Mary the mother of Jesus.

In traditional Christian exegesis, “the woman” and her “seed” have been interpreted as ultimately referring to Mary and Jesus; and the “enmity” established by God between the woman and the serpent has been understood to signify a total opposition of wills. Mary’s “enmity” with Satan, Catholic dogma teaches, is uncompromised by any stain of sin, and is rooted in God’s grace to her in her Immaculate Conception.

This complete opposition of Mary and Satan is evoked in an imaginative and poetic way in The Passion of The Christ in a number of scenes. One such moment occurs as Jesus carries His Cross through the midst of the crowd, with Mary anxiously following Him on one side and the tempter on the other side, mirroring and thus opposing her. Another takes place during the scourging at the pillar, as Satan manifests himself in a vision that amounts to a hideous parody of images of the Madonna and child.

Catholic Meaning, Protestant Audiences

These Marian themes, along with the Divine Mercy allusion in the piercing of Christ’s side, are just two aspects of a strongly Catholic spirituality that pervades the film. In this connection, one of the most interesting aspects of the film’s reception is how eagerly it has been embraced by non-Catholic Christians who in many cases would otherwise be disposed to respond to such Catholic ideas and sensibilities with caution or suspicion.

Not that The Passion of The Christ is an anti-Protestant tract — far from it. The film focuses to a great extent on what unites Christians, not what divides us. Its central theme — the belief that the Son of God for our salvation suffered and was crucified, died and was buried, and rose from the dead — is shared by Catholic and non-Catholic Christians. Protestant believers witnessing the film will in large measure see their own faith reflected in it, and will rightly regard the film as an affirmation of their own beliefs.

That in itself has notable ecumenical significance. While many Protestants recognize Catholics as fellow Christians and the Catholic Church as a Christian church, many others, particularly toward the Fundamentalist end of the spectrum, continue to take a dim view of Catholics and Catholicism. Phrases like “an apostate church,” “a blend of Christianity and paganism,” and “Babylon mystery religion” are common in these circles. One can almost hear them asking, “Can anything good come out of Catholicism?”

Yet Gibson’s and Caviezel’s Catholic beliefs are so well known that in embracing The Passion of The Christ as a profoundly Christian film, non-Catholics will have a hard time not embracing its director and star, and other Catholics with them, as brethren in Christ. Gibson’s traditionalist tendencies only sharpen the conflict, since it underscores that the gospel isn’t something recently discovered by progressive Catholics since Vatican II, but is precisely traditional Catholic belief.

But the Catholic significance of The Passion of The Christ for the Evangelical community goes beyond mere identification of the gospel with the Catholic tradition. As non-Catholics watch the film, they will begin to sense, alongside the gospel of grace they know and love, a sensibility at work that may at first seem strange to them.

The film’s structure, following the Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Venerable Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich, one of the screenplay’s sources, combines two popular traditional Catholic devotions: the 14 Stations of the Cross and the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary. Every mystery and every station is there, in order — including one event drawn entirely from tradition, St. Veronica wiping the Lord’s face.

The film highlights Catholic Eucharistic sensibilities by presenting the Last Supper, not chronologically before the Garden of Gethsemane, but in flashback intercut with the Crucifixion itself. This juxtaposition of the Crucifixion and the Last Supper reflects the Catholic dogma that the Mass, along with the Cross, is a true sacrifice, and the sacrifice of the altar and of the Cross are one.

Another key scene with Eucharistic overtones occurs after the scourging at the pillar, as the two Marys, Jesus’ mother and the Magdalene, get down on their knees and begin mopping His spilled blood off the flagstones. This image is bound to leave more than a few Protestants scratching their heads. Only in light of the Catholic sensibility regarding the Precious Blood of Christ in the Eucharist does it begin to make sense.

A Call to Conversion

For many non-Catholics, Mary is such a contentious subject that the very mention of her name elicits knee-jerk defensiveness: “Mary was just an ordinary sinful woman like anyone else; God used her in a special way, but she’s no different from you or me.”

Besides the Marian themes mentioned above, The Passion’s overall approach to Mary helps to reach beyond this defensiveness, inviting the viewer to a positive, sympathetic contemplation of Mary’s unique relationship with Jesus and with His disciples. When a scene of Mary’s anguish at her Son staggering under the Cross gives way to a flashback of Jesus falling as a toddler and Mary rushing to His side, many will grasp on an emotional level something they may resist putting into words: that while Jesus alone made atonement for our sins, of all His followers Mary was in a unique way united with Him in His sufferings as her mother’s heart was pierced by a sword.

There’s also the way the film presents Jesus’ last words to His mother and the beloved disciple from the cross — “Woman, behold your son… Son, behold… your mother” — with that meaningful pause before the last two words. Add to this the way Peter early on refers to Mary as “Mother,” and it’s clear that The Passion holds up Mary as a mother figure to all Jesus’ disciples.

The Passion of The Christ has been widely hailed by non-Catholic Christians as an evangelistic tool. Much less commented upon is the extent to which Evangelicals and Fundamentalists themselves are among those being evangelized. Even to Catholics, the film is a call to conversion, to a deeper commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ, and a deeper participation in the Paschal mystery of His passion, death, and resurrection.

(c) 2004 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value. (Portions of this article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.)

For complete ratings for this film and hundreds more visit the Decent Films Guide website.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage