By DAVE SLOAN, Special Contributor | Published March 4, 2004
I went to see “The Passion of the Christ” on opening day with my friends Hamilton and Gene. Hamilton is a twenty-something barista at the local Starbuck’s. During his breaks from work we talk about literature and girls and culture and dating and Buddhism and courtship and Christianity too. Zen meditation is his main spiritual practice, that and playing his guitar and piano and clarinet, and I’m pretty sure he plays a few more instruments as well.
Gene leads a meditation group that sits for two hours at a time. He’s also spent three months at a monastery in Kyoto, Japan. There, he went through “monk-killer” week, during which he meditated for eight straight days without lying down. We get together and talk about everything and drink teas from places I’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce.
Sitting between them in the theater I could feel their shoulders close by each side of mine. It seemed very much that it was we three together who were watching, sharing everything in spite of our silence.
In the very many parts of the film where I gasped and began to sob, I found myself choking back these audible expressions. I told myself I was being sensitive to my friends in trying not to unduly influence their experience. But maybe I was simply afraid that if I allowed those scenes to truly pierce my heart then every vestige of doubt would be banished, and I would drop to my knees and cry out as Thomas did, “My Lord and my God!” I remained quiet.
When it was finished we went to Waffle House. Gene and Hamilton were meeting for the first time. They bandied about Japanese terms, speaking of concepts of desire and longing and detachment and comparing various sitting positions; and then they started asking questions about the movie.
“When did he do the miracles and the preaching and the sermon on the mount and that stuff? And what about the temptation, you know, like when Mick Jagger sings in ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ ‘when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and shame,’ what about that? Do you think the torture was really that brutal? How can we really know that?”
I explained that the martyrs of the early Church often died in front of thousands of people, in coliseums and other public places. On the basis of the many vivid accounts of these tortures, we have no reason to doubt Gibson’s representation of the torture inflicted upon the one for whom these martyrs died.
Hamilton said he liked the movie, and wanted to see it again, and I asked him why.
“Well, let me make an analogy. It’s like a piece of paper with writing all over both sides, and then it’s crinkled up into a ball. I had been looking at the ball, and I only saw the marks on the outside of it, on the surface. Now I realize that that story we saw has all of these wrinkles and folds and that the message is written on them and tucked deep inside the core of what we see at first glance. Now I want to know what’s in there, inside.”
“I’ll tell you something else,” Hamilton said, “there’s this girl I know, and she’s a Christian, and she has a beauty that’s entirely different from anything I’ve ever seen, and it seems like her beauty and what she believes are all wrapped up together. And that makes me want to be a better person. And this movie and the way Jesus chose to go through all of that, it makes me want to be a better person. It’s connected somehow. I still don’t know if I believe the stuff people say I’m supposed to believe, like accepting Jesus to be my savior and all of that stuff. I do want to see the movie again, though, definitely. And I’d like to go to Mass with you sometime.”
Gene said he was inspired by the movie, and I asked him how so.
“Well, Jesus’ message and his life were the same. He had a code he lived by, a code of love and service and humility, and he lived it. That takes courage. All men of faith are men of courage throughout the ages. When he was being whipped, I mean, wow, he kept the courage and the faith. I had a very close friend tell me that I’m the strangest holy man he’s ever known, because I have a code and it means everything to me, and I break it. But Jesus was a man, clearly he was much more than a man, but he was also a man, and what he preached, his code, it was just exactly who he was. There was no difference.”
Gene continued, “William James wrote that religious true believers and crazy people can get pretty indistinguishable, and at times it looked like that. But I think it was the real deal; I’m a believer, I believe in it; I mean I believe in the purity of everything he did. I’m not considering him a nutcase or anything, though it can look like that on the surface. God is everything or nothing at all. I’m saying he’s everything.”
Gene and Hamilton both plan to see the movie again, and so do I. I recommend that you do too, if you haven’t already. However, I would make two recommendations. First, don’t go alone. Jesus’ passion is hard to bear, and you’ll need help. Even Jesus couldn’t bear his cross alone; he needed Simon the Cyrene’s help to make it up that hill.
My second suggestion is to pray. Pray whatever and however you can pray. This Passion isn’t easy. It’s hard to watch Jesus crawl up onto that cross. In the end though, we do have to watch. Because he is being crucified all around us even now. He is being starved, scourged, beaten, murdered, racked with disease and neglect, in every crook and cranny of this planet even until this very moment. We do have to watch, and we have to care; and if we are to survive it, to have any chance of making sense of it, we better have someone there with whom to share the watching and the praying.
Of course we don’t have to stop there. Those of us who believe already know that the story doesn’t stop there. Everyone is able to ask, and find an answer to, the main question my friend Gene asked.
“What about that scene at the end of the movie where he just starts to walk out of the tomb? What happens after that? What did everyone do then?”
Dave Sloan, a parishioner at Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, is a local writer and speaker.