A close colleague of mine here at Catholic Charities and I were recently having a conversation about the movies – and in particular the increasingly realistic depiction of violence in film. As it turns out, she and her mother had recently been off to see the picture “War Horse”, and – it being a Disney release – she was astonished at the very graphic depiction of the horrors of the warfare in the First World War – so accurate was the physical violence that she said she spent most of the second third of the movie covering her eyes. I had told her that I had felt a similar reaction when watching both the depiction of the Allied beach landing in the film “Saving Private Ryan”, as well as the brutal assault on the Vietnamese villagers in the Vietnam war era drama “Platoon”; the emotions both films stirred in me were visceral – so close did the scenes appear to mirror the actual horrors of real war and violence that the victims of conflict experience in real life. While my colleague was very upset about the graphic depictions of violence in film today – wishing instead to return to the depictions of wartime in the old Hollywood movies where the characters who were shot merely fell down on the spot in a bloodless demise – I have to admit that I am somewhat torn on this point. That today’s Hollywood glorifies gratuitous violence in a frankly pornographic way is without question; however – to the degree that the violence that is depicted in film accurately portrays what those who are the victims of that violence actually experience – I think that it may be important to portray these atrocities in and honest and even perhaps graphic way in order to bear witness to what our fellow human beings have experienced, in the hope that the cry of “never again…War no more…” may one day be realized.
In the similar way, upon it’s release Mel Gibson’s depiction of the events of the Easter Triduum – “The Passion of the Christ” – was met with a clamor of criticism for, amongst other things, what was an unusually graphic depiction of the violence that Jesus Himself experience at the hand of the Roman authorities on Good Friday on the way to Golgotha and at His crucifixion. I went to go see this movie when it came out, and I have to tell you that – though again I did have a very visceral reaction to the violence committed upon Jesus’ person in the film – I believe Gibson’s portrayal was probably pretty accurate to the brutality that Jesus actually experience on that first Good Friday. I mean, let’s face it, the Roman Empire – the world’s economic, political and military giant of the time – ruled most of what was the known globe not because they were the world’s most efficient administrators, although efficient administrators they certainly were, but instead because they were brutal enforcers of their own Imperial prerogative. Crucifixion – after all – was the method of capital punishment that the Romans used to terrorize the local occupied population into docility and as a warning to discourage non-cooperation with Roman rule, as such its victims experienced a death that was particularly slow, painful, gruesome, humiliating and public. Many depictions of the Crucifixion of Jesus sanitize the horror of what He actually must have experienced: what Gibson’s film did was strip away decorum from the event to make us honestly confront the pain and anguish that the Prince of Peace actually experienced. In this sense, I think that Gibson – a talented film-maker despite his bizarre and disturbing personal behavior – should be commended for producing a film that makes we Christians confront the true cost of the price that Jesus paid out of love for us that first Good Friday.
I think that Gibson’s portrayal of Christ “gets it right” in another way too – one that is often overlooked because of the graphic nature of the content of most of the film. The part of the movie that I like most is literally the last two minutes of the film : the part that begins with a black screen depicting the interior of the tomb where the disciples of Jesus have laid his lifeless body after the Crucifixion. Slowly, a bright light begins to creep from the lower right to the upper left hand corner of the screen casting it’s glow over the bare walls of the enclosure until it comes to illuminate a body-length pile of linen laying flat on a rough hewn stone platform; the camera then pans out and focuses on Jesus, who now sits upright next to the linen on the edge of the platform – eyes closed. As the music crescendos, Jesus opens his eyes and stands, the camera then focusing on the nail hole piercing his palm; Jesus is still for a moment, steadies Himself, and then takes his first step (click here to view clip). The step that is depicted is not a hesitant meander as we might take when waking up from a deep sleep upon first getting up out of bed, but instead is a hearty stride: Jesus move quickly out of the camera’s vision, up out of the tomb serious and purposefully – He is Risen, and clearly on the move.
I like Gibson’s portrayal so much because it depicts Jesus upon His Resurrection not as some friendly ethereal spirit making brief appearances to the disciples almost as an actor in a movie would make a cameo, but instead as a real corporeal person – on the move with places to go and people to see…. obviously a man with a mission. And honestly, with the kind of purposeful life that Jesus had lived on Earth, what other type of behavior would we expect of Him upon His Resurrection? After all, this was a Man who during His Earthly ministry continually helped the blind to see, deaf to hear, the lame to walk, cured the sick, fed the multitude, placed his own body between the crowd and the woman caught in adultery to prevent them from stoning her. All throughout His ministry, Jesus lived the life of an itinerant – always on the go to places He was expected, and even to places where he was not expected – preaching the Good News to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. With a life dedicated so utterly to helping others wherever and whenever he encountered them, why would we expect Jesus to behave any differently after His Resurrection?
Yesterday morning, I took part in what for me has become part of my annual Good Friday observance – with about 500 or so others I participated in the 30th Annual Pax Christi Metro New York Good Friday Way of the Cross. Similar in many ways to other “Ways of the Cross” or “Via Crucis” that take place all over the United States every year (click here to view list) – themselves all based upon the centuries old tradition in the Church that recalls journey that Jesus took from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate to the place of His Crucifixion on Golgotha in Jerusalem known as the Via Dolorosa – the Pax Christi Way of the Cross begins at 8:30 a.m. across from Holy Family Church (the United Nation’s Parish) in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza and proceeds over the course of about four hours along 42nd Street to conclude at Holy Cross Church directly across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal; along the way, participants take part in re-enacting contemporary Stations of the Cross where there is reflection on both Jesus’ Passion as described in the Scripture, as well as how suffering is experienced by those marginalized in our world today including: children, the poor, the hungry, refugees and immigrants, victims of racism and human trafficking, of bullying and gender discrimination, those condemned to die and those denied the opportunity to live. The Pax Christi Stations end a bit differently then the traditional 14 Stations (which end with Jesus laid in the tomb); instead, the Pax Christi Stations conclude Scripturally on a hopeful note with a 15th Station in anticipation of Jesus’ Resurrection, and the actual Way of the Cross concludes over at the Port Authority Bus Terminal with walk participants actually doing what Jesus Himself would have done by distributing food to those who are hungry.
It is elements such as these that have always made the Pax Christi Good Friday Way of the Cross such a spiritually meaningful Good Friday observance for me. I think that the linking together of contemporary suffering with the redemptive suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ shows those who pass by and witness the Walk that what we Christians do on Good Friday is not commemorate some historical event that took place going on over 2,000 years ago, but instead is to celebrate an on-going reality that has as much redemptive power and relevance in our own world today as on that first Good Friday in Jerusalem in A.D. 29. By publicly witnessing our faith and belief in this reality, we turn 42nd Street into a place of prayer – bringing the presence of Christ to places as expected as Churches – and as unexpected as the Port Authority Bus Terminal; by feeding the hungry we show that Christ’s feeding of the multitude did not end on a hill in Palestine two millennia ago, but continues today – here and now – in our own city. By making the Way of the Cross through the cross-roads of the World, we are public witnesses to the fact that the Tomb is indeed empty, and that Jesus IS Risen and still – to this day – on the move!
A Blessed Easter to you all, and may each of you encounter the Risen Christ in places both expected and unexpected this Easter Season.