Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION

A few years ago I read that Mel Gibson was going to make a movie. Not just a movie, but a movie about The Passion. Not just about The Passion, but a movie in Aramaic with subtitles. I was astounded and entranced and could not wait to see it. I wasn’t sure whether it would be a train wreck or a triumph, but I knew I had to be there, the very first day, to see it.

By the time I saw it, my resentment was so high I was spitting nails.

You see, at the time I first heard about it, I’d only recently discovered “The Passion” myself. I was raised Protestant, and in my Methodist church (like most of that time) Palm Sunday was a fun service of children processing in waving palm leaves and singing ”Tell me the stories of Jesus,” and if there was much about Holy Week in that service, it went over my head as so much yada. I mean, I knew what happened, but it was just old words. I don’t think I even knew the term, Holy Week.

We got Good Friday off from school and we knew that was the day Jesus was crucified, but that’s about it.

Easter was another fun Sunday, a day when we wore new Easter clothes, had Easter baskets and eggs and candy, a lot of Easter lilies at church, and a big dinner at home.

My first exposure to anything different was when I was about 10 years old and spending Easter at my grandmother’s, and the girl next door showed me her Easter basket early that morning. She was so excited — and she hadn’t opened any candy yet.

I asked why.

She said, “Because I gave candy up for Lent, and I can’t have any until after church.” First of all, I had no idea what “Lent” was; I had no understanding of giving something up for it; and furthermore I had absolutely no freaking understanding of a basketful of chocolate eggs that you couldn’t touch until after church!

She said she couldn’t even eat breakfast until after church, because she had to wait until after she’d received Communion.

I can’t begin to tell you how boggled my brain was. I knew Communion. I loved Communion. There was nothing I loved better in church than going up to the front of the church, kneeling at the altar rail and receiving the little jigger glass of Welch’s grape juice and the dry little cracker. I really didn’t want to get up and leave. I just always felt something special there, and was sorry we only had Communion once a month.

But clearly she was describing something vastly different.

I asked my grandmother who explained that Melody was Catholic, and they did things differently. (I have no idea what my grandmother told me beyond that. It wasn’t anything negative. It was just that Catholics were different from Methodists, probably followed by a, “How on earth did you get your socks muddy in just five minutes? Somebody get this child some clean socks before we’re late for church!”)

Unlike some of my friends, I was never taught anything negative about Catholics. In 4th grade my Sunday School class studied other religions and we attended a Friday night service at Temple Emanu-El (I would have converted on the spot if somebody had told me how to) and Sunday morning mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral (now Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe, another service that moved me even though I had no idea what was going on), and had visited an Eastern Orthodox church (we weren’t allowed to attend services there). There was discussion of attending an Assembly of God church but some parents were concerned we’d make spectacles of ourselves laughing or something, since we weren’t accustomed to seeing people “moved by the Spirit.”

But I had other friends who were extremely anti-Catholic. I discovered this in High School, which astonished me since by then I had Catholic friends. I’d been raised in such an open environment, I had no idea that not all denominations were as open.

Gradually I became aware of the venom with which some people expressed their disdain for things like — crucifixes. Bloody Jesus on a cross! It was seen as anything from being “in poor taste” to being “ignorant” to worse. (Note: I must admit that even as an adult I found it odd and curious when I saw a crucifix in a friend’s house, but that was more because it was a cheap little thing that did nothing to enhance the decor of the room, rather than the tasteful one in another friend’s house, so yes, I am admitting my own prejudices here, as well.)

Returning to my story, in high school a Baptist friend visited my church with me, and was very confused and suspicious that we were reading/reciting the Apostles’ Creed, and when we got to the part about the “holy catholic church,” she was alarmed. She didn’t believe my explanation that “catholic” meant “universal” and she wasn’t allowed to attend church with me again.

Oh, and don’t forget, that Catholics worship Mary. And saints!

And those candles could only be viewed with suspicion.

(Did I mention that whenever we took vacations, my family and I made it a habit of going into old Catholic churches? It started in Southern Louisiana, and became our custom.)

Well, fast-forward a decade or three and for too many reasons to go into, I became an Episcopalian. And if you’re not familiar with us, we are very Catholic, just not part of the Roman Church.

And it was my first taste of Lent and Holy Week.

Ash Wednesday. Begin the preparation for Easter by beginning 40 days of penitence. Ashes on forehead, and either giving up or taking on something. Or both. I’ve given up caffeine several times. I find it to be a rewarding experience to give something up that way. The hardest thing I ever did was give up saying “fuck.” Damn, that was hard. Um, I digress.

And all the crucifixes and crosses are draped in purple linen for the duration of Lent.

Palm Sunday — gather in the Great Hall, have a ritual lighting of incense (incense!!!) and recite or sing the liturgy, then everyone processes outside and around and into the cathedral singing ”All glory laud and honor” but after a jubilant “entry to Jerusalem” things change drastically. (I’ve heard this called “whiplash Sunday” for this reason.)

The reading is the recounting of the trial, and it is split between several lectors and the congregation. And the congregation gets all the, “Crucify him!” bits. Now, if you haven’t sat there as part of the mob calling out “crucify him,” you haven’t experienced Palm Sunday.

By the time we go forward and kneel to receive Eucharist (Communion — every week with real wine, thank you very much) there’s a very somber mood, indeed.

And then we have the processional out into the world. At our church the last hymn is always “O Sacred Head sore wounded,” which Paul Simon adapted so beautifully.

As the draped cross is carried down the aisle, we sing, “O sacred head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn; O kingly head surrounded with mocking crown of thorn,” and continue as the choir processes by, then the clergy.

And all the time, the pipe organ is getting softer, and softer ….

Until finally there is no organ, only voices singing the last verse. Quiet, ethereal, haunting.

And then it is over.

Holy Week is begun.

Skip ahead to Maundy Thursday — a service I first heard of in high school from a Lutheran friend and couldn’t figure out why all the other churches got to have all the fun. (Certainly, we had no such service at the Methodist church.)

Maundy Thursday is the Last Supper, when (yes, those WASP-y Episcopalians!) go in for some foot washing. The clergy (priests and deacons) wash the feet of any parishioners who go forward, a distant echo of Christ washing the feet of the disciples. And while not everybody goes forward, many do. It’s a very moving service, but the real impact happens when it ends. When the last beautiful hymn is sung, the choir and clergy process out, and instead of leaving, everyone else sits silently and waits.

The incense hangs in the rafters and silence echoes from the stained glass and then, the clergy returns in black and begins stripping the church. Anything decorative is carried out. Anything brass. Flowers. Anything that isn’t nailed down is carried out. Candles extinguished and candlesticks whisked away silently, as the cathedral grows darker, darker.

Finally, the reserved Eucharist is removed from the tabernacle, and the sanctuary light is extinguished.

And it is impossible to describe the desolation of that dark, very empty space, when that last candle is out, and barely enough light remains for us all to silently walk out into the night.

Christ is gone. We have betrayed him.

People take turns praying an overnight vigil in the Oratory (chapel), never leaving Christ alone, pretending that unlike what happened in Gethsemane, we would not leave him. (Yes, the same people who cried, “Crucify him,” a few days earlier.)

And then, at noon on Good Friday begins the three hours Christ was on the cross, and a three hour service in the dark cathedral. (No lights other than what comes through the stained glass; no flowers; nothing except, sometimes, a very harsh, rough-looking cross). Three hours, noon to three. Remembering the suffering.

And then, sundown Saturday, in the Jewish tradition, the new day begins. Easter Vigil is the first celebration of Easter.

It begins in darkness, with chant, with the lighting of fire that ” symbolizes the radiance of the Risen Christ dispelling the darkness of sin and death. As the Paschal candle is carried forward, the flame is shared until the church is filled with flickering light as we all hold our candles aloft.

Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!
The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia, alleluia!

And suddenly, let there be light!

And not only is there light and (oh yes) incense, but we see a reverse of what happened Thursday night. Like carefully choreographed clockwork, the candlesticks, candles, crosses, everything that was removed returns and the music — oh, the music. I don’t know what it is called, but whatever it is, includes bells and trumpets and brass and — pure jubilation.

The first Easter service has begun.

Easter, more of the same. Beginning with another triumphant shout of, “Christ is risen,” and all those “alleluias” and a procession of candles and incense and ”Jesus Christ is risen today, which was “Christ the Lord is risen today” in the Methodist hymnal and I’ve which was the original text and who changed it, but I digress.

More brass, bells, incense, candles. Oh yes, and it’s Easter, so whatever you gave up for Lent can return.

Well, I wouldn’t suggest saying “fuck!” at this moment. I mean, not if you’re an Episcopalian. Not in the middle of church. Later, at coffee hour would be far more appropriate….

Um, another digression.

I’ve been yammering on too long.

Okay, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of theatre here. And yes, that’s part of what drew me to the Episcopal church. The ritual, the liturgy (oh, the liturgy!), the incense, the music, the theatre.

The “reliving” of those moments, those awful and wonderful moments of Holy Week.

And that brings us back to, Mel Gibson.

When I first heard about his “The Passion,” I assumed it would be an art house film. I mean, how else could an Aramaic subtitled Catholic telling of the Passion be presented? And I couldn’t wait.

Could. Not. Wait.

To see how it turned out.

And it turned out to be a glorified snuff film.

I believe any filmmaker is beholden to tell their stories their way, and for Mel Gibson to present his “The Passion” the way he did was — well, it was pure Mel Gibson. And that wouldn’t have bothered me except —

Except, he claimed to be telling it “the way it really happened.” Not just his vision, but THE way it happened.

And he included legend — the legend of St. Veronica who offered Christ a towel for his face (and, not in the film, an impression of his face was left on the towel which she then took to Rome, yada yada) — not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Except he was claiming that the visions of an 18th Century nun (a saint! and the source of much of his story) were “as it really was” — and I could even live with that, because it’s HIS opinion, right? And it’s a lovely legend, and who really cares in the final analysis?

But. Here is where the irony comes in.

Suddenly all the Protestant churches who previously scorned everything “Catholic” were flocking to support “St. Mel” and were loading up their buses with members and any visitors they could scrape together and all the Christian propaganda — I mean, literature — that had been printed specifically to pass out to people who went to the movie, and THEY all were saying, “This is how it really was!”

Now, when I asked a minister, “What about all the whipping and scourging? I thought the ancient Roman belief was that if someone was whipped more than 49 times, they’d die, so it’s been understood that Christ wouldn’t have been whipped more than that?” (If my details are wrong, forgive me. It has been a few years. But during the whipping and scourging when I turned my head because I just couldn’t watch the carnage, my brain started counting the strokes and I don’t remember how high the number got, but it was WAY beyond 49.)

And the minister just shrugged. That was of minor importance.


This guy was supporting Mel Gibson’s assertion that this movie portrayed the true story, of what REALLY HAPPENED — the movie that had been turned into Christian propaganda — I mean, evangelism — this minisuter was being presenting it as “the truth” but the actual facts didn’t matter, as long as people walked out beaten down with the knowledge that Christ died for them?

Millions of people were flocking to the spectacle of “The Passion of the Christ” like ancient Romans flocking to the Coliseum, and churches and ministers were so heady with the experience, they embraced every Catholic aspect of Mel’s vision, plus the bloody-Mel Gibson-masochistic visions, and proclaimed, “This is the way it was,” and I stood by watching, agog.

Tables with “literature” were set up outside every showing and in the early days and weeks, most showings also had clergy hanging around outside to counsel those who had been emotionally battered into submission by the brutality of the scourging, beating, whipping and crucifixion.

Holy dogs in heaven.

Mad Max Went to Hell and brought back his vision, and the people saw it and said that it was good.

Mind you, I found all of this funny. Very funny. The irony was too beautiful for words, that the reason (other than the X-rated violence) why this was all so new and so overwhelming to most of the audience was that as good Protestants, they’d spent centuries turning their heads away from bloody Christ on a bloody-damn cross. Ignored Mary and what she went through and spent so much effort reminding each other that she was just a human, a nice girl, a very nice girl, but somebody who could be pretty much ignored except at Christmas. (“Why,” one woman said to me, her face alight with wonder and sadness, “We’ve never once even thought of what Mary went through, to watch that happen to her son!” Um, you haven’t sweetie, but believe me, millions of Catholics and Orthodox have, so get over yourself.)

Mel Gibson brought a lot of Protestants back to the penitence and agony of the Passion, when they’d steadfastly celebrated only the pretty parts for centuries. And they didn’t seem to even realize the irony, which I will admit amused me to no end.

But my reality is this — his movie glorified violence in a way that, to me, is unholy, and worse, rotten filmmaking.

Good filmmaking would have resulted in less violence and more true emotion, not just visually and psychically battering people into a state of shock and horror.

Much of the movie was sublime; but I can’t get past the brutality that so lovingly and sadistically portrayed it not “as it was” — we can’t know that, but there’s a lot of sound reason to believe it “wasn’t” — but portrayed an exaggerrated brutality that by it’s very existance said, “What Christ did wasn’t bad enough — I’ve got to make it WORSE to make sure peole really feel it.”

I have to believe that there are better ways to experience The Passion.

For me, it’s an internal experience that lasts for 40 days and ends in triumph and joy and chocolate eggs and caffeine and a hearty, “Oh fuck.”

The difference between Mel and me is, I realize my vision may not be the only one, or the right one. But so far, God and I have been just fine with it.

(Well, I’m not sure how he feels about my potty-mouth, but I think he’s more concerned about my other flaws at the moment, you know, the ones that really matter.)

(And by the way, you won’t catch me saying, ”Happy Good Friday,” because the German “Mourning Friday” better suits my vision of the day. But M-mv’s post is a good one.)

Van Eyck, Jan

Van Eyck, Jan
The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment


Filed under Holy Week, Religion, The Passion of The Christ

20 responses to “Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION

  1. Beautiful post, Pooks.
    I also like the rituals of the church, the incense especially.

    I did not care for Gibson’s Passion, fell asleep while it played on my tv. It don’t think this film got all the other religions to stop hatin’ on us Catholics.

    There was a whole lot of vile spit out at us in the documentary, “Jesus Camp.” Actually, before that movie, I was unaware that people hated Catholics.

  2. Wonderful post Pooks. Thank you for bringing church to me as I’ve not been able to attend traditional services this week as I normally do. Which hasn’t sucked as much as I thought it would. It’s actually allowed me to experience Holy Week in ways I’ve never imagined before, for example this post. A perfect Holy Saturday comtemplation for me today. thanks.

    3 Comments: 1) the music during the Easter Vigil is referred to as the Great Noise, and symbolizes Jesus breaking the bondage of death. I can remember one year, all the children were even provided with noise makers. I love the Easter Vigil. Our new rector chooses not to do this service. He has “theological issues” with dismissing the congregation out into the darkness. I’m bitter.

    2) Don’t even get me going about the gospel according to mel. While I was moved by the beauty of the language, and the scene with Mary laying her head on the pavement over the place where Jesus was imprisoned, the violence went way beyond shock-value. I was still working for the church at the time. I was one of the few youth ministers who counseled parents to please NOT take their youth because of the NC17 violence. The summer after the movie’s release, the mission trip company I used, used that movie as their theme. On what I now refer to as “Thursday Night Cry Night”I was up all night counseling traumatized kids. No one was able to function on Friday.
    3) My kids and I are Episcopalians in a LARGE Catholic family. We still attend services at our family’s Catholic parish on High Holy Family Days (i.e. Mother’s Day). I let my 14 year old go to youth group with his Baptist friend a couple of weeks ago. Imagine his confusion when he got there and heard kids testifying about “being afraid of and saving Catholics” in Mexico over spring break.

  3. Holy cow. I had no idea the anti-Catholic stuff was so strong still. I think it’s in isoloated extreme-right-uber-conservative pockets; I don’t think it’s as strong as it once was in general since a lot of Prot churches are now having Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, etc. services which they once would have dismissed as “too Catholic.”

    If you want to squeeze in a service tonight, The Great Vigil of Easter (English) is at 9:00 tonight at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Dallas. It’s a glorious service. It seems to be mostly attended by the families of those being confirmed and baptised, which means it’s not “big” by attendance standards, but it gets all the ritual it deserves including brass quintet, pipe organ, choir, chant, candles, etc. I was confirmed in that service and can’t imagine a more glorious experience.

    I’m glad the post was understandable. It’s a lot of stuff I’ve had on my mind and ended up being very long and garbled. I considered waiting until I had time to rewrite and clarify, but knew I wouldn’t get around to it until Pentecost, if then!

  4. Oh yeah, one more thing. If anybody is wondering. St. Matthew’s Cathedral is a moderate Episcopal congregation that is a mix of conservative and liberal. We get along wonderfully and always have. The only times anything has been preached from the pulpit about the current “troubles” were painful for the congregation, but what are you going to tell the Bishop? “You can’t preach here?” In his “own” cathedral? Grrr. He only shows up rarely, and I respect him as my bishop, even if I hate his stance on the role of gays in the church.

    End of disclaimer.

  5. Sam

    I haven’t seen “Passion of the Christ” for a number of reasons, some of which have been covered in your post. Instead of commenting I’d like to tell a story from my childhood.

    When I was a little kid I was made (yes, made) to attend Sunday school. I hated it. It freaked me out. I was intimidated by our teacher. And I didn’t understand much of what I was told was absolute truth. For instance, that Christ died for my sins. I couldn’t understand how he could die for sins I hadn’t yet committed. And the concept of “original sin” made no sense to me whatsoever. What really freaked me out, though, was how the other students would stand up in response to a question from the teacher and blurt out “the answer.” One boy in particular made me nervous. He would stand ramrod straight and beam with pleasure as our teacher praised him for reciting, word for word, the proscribed answer to the question he’d been given. My classmates struck me as being robots. Automatons. And in this environment I didn’t feel as though I could ask any questions.

    The teacher hated me. I could tell. I don’t why she did. I never did anything. I just sat there quietly.

    Maybe that was why.

    My sister and I would be sent off on the bus every Sunday morning. And every Sunday morning I would whine to my mom. I didn’t want to go. Why did I have to go? On and on. My sister would just stand there silent.

    One day my mother finally had enough and said, “Okay, you don’t have to go!” And my sister suddenly piped up with, “If he doesn’t have to go, then I don’t have to go.” Upon getting an affirmative from my mom she said, “Good!”

    I remember standing there thinking about all the many weeks I’d campaigned to stay out of church and she’d never offered a single word…a single shred…of support. And the whole time she didn’t want to go, either. I was pretty damn annoyed. LOL

  6. thanks pooks re:info service tonight. i’ll talk to the family and see if they’re game. st. matthew’s is lovely and i can just imagine how beautiful this particular service is in that nave. peace, michele

  7. Sam, one of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is how proud they/we are of our unofficial motto, “You don’t have to check your brain at the door.” No wonder you hated it. Your poor mother, thinking she had to send you to that for some reason.

    Michele, let me know if you go; I haven’t figured out whether I’ll be there yet or not.

  8. Episcopalians can say fuck in church on Easter.

    A couple of years ago, my husband was ushering on Easter morning. One of his co-ushers is a retired Rather High Government Official. The Head Usher that Sunday is a very gay wedding planner, a bit like Franck from “Father of the Bride,” except completely English-speaking. Prone to wear morning coat with tails to church on his Sunday to usher. Prone to wearing rings he inherited from his grandmother. This is even sort of really gay for Episcopalians.

    After the offering was taken, the head usher and a new usher took the offerings forward. When they arrived at the altar, instead of being able to hop right up the three steps in the chancel with the dough, the entire chancel was full of Easter Lilies.

    Instead of going to the side of the altar and entering the sanctuary there, he decided to go (and take the new guy with him) “tiptoeing through the lilies.” In his morning coat. Which may have been white, if I recall correctly. Sort of a liturgical Samba.

    The retired Rather High Government Official leaned over to my husband while observing this dance, and whispered “Looks sorta like a monkey trying to fuck a football, doesn’t it?”

    See, it can happen.

  9. And you notice, it happened in an Episcopal Church.

  10. Pooks, Unfortunately we won’t be at church tonight. The general consensus is it would be way cool, but too far to drive since we have to get up way early tomorrow a.m. Thanks for the invite though, His Peace, Michele

  11. Sam

    It was the Foursquare Church, founded by Aimee Semple McPherson.,3.html

    My mom says she liked that church. “They never pushed.” But she also says my sister ‘loved’ going there. LOL Maybe at one time, but definitely not toward the end.

    The one thing we agree on is they faithfully picked us up every Sunday and brought us home.

  12. Wow.

    I grew up in Baptist churches, and the Easter sermons were never dramatic. We only had church on Sundays and Wednesdays, so we never had the Last Supper retelling. Reading your description of the voices and the removal of the decorations, leaving only the bare cross and darkness until Easter, gives me shivers down my spine. It sounds very symbolic, and would leave me more in tears than the Bible-thumping fire-and-brimstone preachers I grew up with.

    As for the Passion of the Christ, I refuse to give my money to Mel Gibson for a glorified snuff film. I won’t even download it. I’m fully aware that the entire situation probably was a brutal and horrifying experience, but I don’t have to see it.

  13. PS:

    The head usher yesterday did not wear his morning coat. Instead, he wore a soft coral linen blazer.

    But he was wearing his grandma’s ring.

  14. I luuurv being a piskie.

  15. Well Mel has done us all wrong! Too bad he had such a good movie that his actions since have trashed his credibility.

  16. fran

    WHAT!!! this is a load of bollocks! OK SO IM AN ATHEIST! but you people force ur religion on people! ur just so ignorant!

  17. It’s okay, Fran. Nobody made you see the damn movie or read this entry and comments. You can breathe; it will be better.

    Get over it

  18. Pingback: ‘Tis the (other) season « planet pooks

  19. Emee

    FYI, Catholics don’t worship Mary and the saints, we honour them as great examples of those who follow God.

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