Saturation of Suffering

It is Holy Week and we celebrate the Transitus Domini, the Paschal Mystery of our Redemption. This awesome Mystery is seen both from a “high” and theological / liturgical point of view and from the human angle.

The other point of view is the extreme level of abuse and torture Jesus suffered. If it does anything for your spiritual life and you can bear it, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ can be seen on YouTube:

Seeing such horror and sadistic cruelty may provoke us to pity and compassion, like Spanish crucifixes and Ignatian meditations on the Passion. In others, these scenes may provoke anger or simply an utter incomprehension of man’s inhumanity to man. Many who lived through World War II and other more recent conflicts were so saturated with suffering that they could no longer accept the idea of a loving and merciful God. Some of us might react the same way on seeing this film that gives the most realistic rendering of Christ’s suffering. I suggest the film be seen with this reserve and consideration in view.

For others of us, we cling to the idea of God’s incarnation through Christ, his participating in our nature so that we might by grace participate in his. The Mystery is rendered present for us through the liturgy as the Church is brought together to pass through death into new life. My vision is close to that of Dom Casel and his thoughts about how the Church Fathers understood the Mystery. The ideal is that contemplation should transcend images of Christ’s physical sufferings, uniting all the biblical and allegorical images of the old Jewish Passover and man’s deification. We above all celebrate the mystery of our Baptism, our own participation in this passage from servitude to freedom, from death to life.

In his sacred humanity, Christ cried out My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? The cup was full, and yet there already lay the hope of the Resurrection.

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10 Responses to Saturation of Suffering

  1. ed pacht says:

    I, for one, found Gibson’s film diquieting in a way that leaves me entirely incapable of recommending it to anyone. While it is certainly true that the way in which Christ died was one of extreme brutality, that aspect of those events is most certainly not given emphasis in Scripture. I’ve long been struck by the immense reserve with which all the Gospels describe the Passion and the strikingly dispassionate way in which St. Paul references His Sacrifice. We are saved, not by the brutality He endured, not by the inhuman compulsion that humans applied to Him, but by the Sacrifice He willingly made, by the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God. An overemphasis on the physical details of suffering can be seen as detracting from the theological and spiritual reality. While meditation on the wounds of Christ and His suffering does have a lot of value, it is quite possible to overbalance the message in that direction and to distort the message of the Gospel. Frankly I think Gibson has done just that. I emerged from the theater feeling dirty, as if I had just been viewing pornography. Some time after I had sat through that presentation and come to such conclusions myself, I had some conversations with some of my non-believing friends (whom I dearly want to bring to Christ) and found them to be universally repulsed. “What kind of religion,” one of them said, “can take pleasure in such an ugly snuff film?”

    I’m sorry, but I much prefer the dispassionate Passion accounts in the Gospels and the stately beauty of traditional liturgical commemorations, and advise that nearly everyone should stay far away from this film.

    • I like your reflections, and I think you hit the nail on the head. I find much more in the liturgy and reading the Gospel texts than in watching “ultra-realistic” films. There is a certain modesty to be observed.

      • Sandra McColl says:

        I haven’t seen it and don’t want to see it. I find the liturgies themselves, if entered into in the right spirit (not that I can claim that), harrowing enough.

      • Patricius says:

        The most moved I ever was by Liturgy was Palm Sunday 4 years ago when I heard St Matthew’s Passion narrative chanted (in Latin) from start to finish. It was Scripture in its proper place, which ought to be enough for anyone. At any rate it seems more dignified than taking your Bible into some corner somewhere and reading it by yourself.

        I too cannot watch Mel Gibson’s Passion film. I actually found the subject itself rather inappropriate for what is essentially a theatrical performance. I did enjoy Jesus of Nazareth, though.

      • Yes, the Zefarelli film is much better and certainly moving. I have often used selected parts of it for giving catechism to children. Indeed, the liturgy is our best teacher, but yet is not for teaching but for bringing us to the Mystery itself.

  2. ed pacht says:

    There have been a lot of theatrical productions, films, and Passion Plays based on the Passion of Christ. What the best of them have, and share with the source material, the Gospels, is restraint, something Gibson’s version lacks entirely. The unremitting brutality of this film leaves no room for thought, no way for the human imagination to enter into the fullness of what was being accomplished, and immerses one in the ugliness of the events to the exclusion of the beauty of redemption. The Gospels themselves do not fall into that trap.

    The problem with Gibson’s film is not merely theological, but very deeply artistic. Great art, whether visual, musical, dramatic, or literary is defined as much by its restraint as by what it does present. The viewer/hearer has a role in art, a vital one without which art does not exist. Restraint allows the esthetic/intellectual/philosophical faculties of the beholder room to work. Gibson, like much of popular culture, has no such concept. His other films display little restraint and this one abandons it altogether.

    Here’s a link to a short film I found of Fr. Smuts’ blog that uses the same material in a far more successful way, engaging, rather than suppressing the imaginative capability.

    • I appreciate your reflections. I saw the film once and not since then. I felt quite revolted, more repelled by the brutality and evil hypocrisy of so-called “men of God” than reminded about the salvific sufferings of the Lamb of God. In general terms, in the world of cinema, I am happier with golden oldies than with modern films. Modern films are too realistic, especially when it comes to sex and violence, and any “innocence” I have left is violated.

      I saw the film on Fr Smuts’ blog. It is indeed engaging but somewhat “artificial”. How does one portray the conversion of a soul? Trying to dramatise a mystery is like the attempts I have seen to portray heaven and the afterlife. Nosso Lar is interesting, but I think heaven must be so different from that! It is beyond anything we can ever imagine, so the Scriptures tell us.

      • ed pacht says:

        I found this little piece to be a wonderfully understated account of spiritual psychology. The young man is suddenly and inexplicably moved from a remote observation of brutal events to a participation in the Mystery. That’s what conversion is. That’s what liturgy is for – that’s what Scripture is for. The film does not attempt to explain how this experience came to him, or why it did not come to his brother, but merely to illustrate metanoia, the change that comes upon us when we find ourselves to be part of the mighty acts of God.. It’s a simple, short story that says no more than it says, but what it says is beyond what the human mind can really grasp.

      • I felt it to be incomplete, but a film cannot be complete. Within its limitations, the portrayal is very good.

  3. Patricius says:

    I actually think that the whole of Scripture is very ripe for a theatrical performance. The first English ballet, with music by Vaughan Williams and choreography by Ninette de Valois, was based on the Book of Job and was called Job: A Masque for Dancing; not in a masque tradition at all but Vaughan Williams was said to dislike the word ”ballet.” I have never seen it but the music isn’t half bad. One could almost say that it is in a distinctly High Anglican tradition, given Vaughan Williams’ contribution to the 1906 English Hymnal.

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