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.
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.)
The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment