Christ's real passion was life
CAN A PIOUS Christian make too much of the passion of the Christ? Can the suffering of Jesus be remembered as too bloody? Or too unique, for that matter? Can the crucifixion be made too central to Christian faith? Indeed, can that faith be distorted by an overemphasis on blood and cruelty into a perversion of the message Jesus preached -- or even into a source of new cruelty? These are questions in my mind as I sit outside the small chapel that marks the place where Jesus died. Sensational news stories and a clever publicity campaign lead me to associate Golgotha with Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ." I am aware of the danger of prejudgment, having not seen the film, yet Gibson's many comments and selective screenings of excerpts, which I have seen, are enough to have me thinking of it here. The possibility that the film levels the old "Christ-killer" charge against Jews prompted my first concern.
But an afternoon's meditation at the place where Christians have remembered the death of Jesus for 1,600 years raises the question of whether we have more broadly misused that memory. This shrine memorializing Golgotha is, in fact, a kind of side chapel in a much larger church that gives overwhelming emphasis to the memory of Jesus being raised from the dead. One sees that in the fact that the church is called the Holy Sepulcher by Latin Christians, indicating the tomb, not the execution place, and even more in the fact that Eastern Orthodox Christians call it the Church of the Resurrection. A celebration of the joy of resurrection trumps the grief of crucifixion in every way here.
In the first centuries of the church, the bloody crucifixion had little hold on the religious imagination of Christians. Scratched on the walls of the ancient catacombs, for example, one finds drawings of the communion cup, the loaf of bread, the fish -- but rarely if ever the cross.
Early Christians revered the death of Jesus, of course, but they evoked it metaphorically, not literally, more with the image of going down into the waters of baptism than with nails and blood. The cross comes into the center of Christian symbolism only in the fourth century, with Constantine and his mother, Helena, who is remembered as having discovered it here, only yards from where I sit. But even then, the cross was taken more as a token of resurrection than of brutal death.
It was only in the medieval period that the Latin church began to put the violent death of Jesus at the center of faith, but that theology was tied to a broader cultural obsession with death related to plagues, millennialism, and the carnage of the Crusades. Grotesquely literal renditions of the crucifixion came into art only as self-flagellation and other "mortifications" came into devotion. Good Friday began to replace Easter as the high point of the liturgical year. And God came to be understood as so cruel as to will his son's agonizing death as the only way to "atone" for the sins of fallen humanity.
Such is the piety into which many Christians, including Catholics of my generation, were born. From all reports, it is the piety on display in Mel Gibson's movie. But in nothing have the reforms of the Second Vatican Council been more significant than in a rejection of that piety and a return of the Resurrection to the center of faith. That is why, in the Catholic Church, white vestments replaced black at funeral services, why Easter rites have been reemphasized, why the cross itself, in church architecture, is downplayed.
All of this is to say that death was not the purpose of Jesus' life but only one part of a story that stretches from incarnation at Bethlehem to life as a Jew in Nazareth to preaching in Galilee to a courageous challenge to Roman imperialism in Jerusalem to permanent faith in the God of Israel whose promise is fulfilled in resurrection. In this full context, the death of Jesus can be seen as a full signal of his humanity -- and more.
In being crucified, Jesus was not uniquely singled out for the most extreme suffering ever inflicted but was joined to thousands of his fellow Jews who said no to Rome -- and who suffered similarly for it.
Leaving aside questions of taste, or even of prurience in displays of graphic violence, any rendition of the death of Jesus that attributes sacred meaning to suffering or cruelty to "God's will," not to mention special guilt to Jews, is a betrayal of the real passions of Christ -- which were for truth, for love, and for life. Life, as he put it, to the full.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.