Published April 8, 2004
There has been a surprising stirring of media interest recently in someone whose name rarely makes headlines. That person is Jesus Christ, and although other movies have portrayed his life and death, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is sparking intense controversy.
Some critics seem so intent on deciding who bears responsibility for killing Jesus that they’ve turned the story into a major whodunit. The truth is, though, Christ’s death is not a mystery to be unraveled but a love story to be embraced.
Gibson’s movie is based largely on Gospel scenes detailing the arrest, scourging, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Still, it is crucial to realize that Jesus’ final hours comprise a mere sliver of the Gospels, with the lion’s share devoted to stories about him healing, teaching and serving.
And although the story of Christ’s suffering, dying and finally emerging triumphant from the grave was too much for me as a child, as an adult I cherish these scenes as the heart of an ongoing love story.
How telling that Jesus emerges in the Gospels as a miracle worker at a wedding feast. He is not ready to start his public ministry, but when his mother tells him the couple has run out of wine, his compassion for them births the miraculous transformation of water into wine.
Another chapter in the love story unfolds the night before he died when he broke bread and drank wine with his friends, imploring them to “Love one another as I love you.”
He wrapped a towel around his waist and stooped down to wash their feet to show them the down and dirty part of love. And he didn’t just wash the feet of the faithful; he included Judas, the one who would betray him for thirty pieces of silver.
The danger of taking Christ’s final hours out of context is that he appears to be merely a revolutionary figure, arrested and crucified against his will for bucking the status quo.
But Christians believe that Jesus was much more. He was God in the flesh—and his suffering on the cross is the jewel of our faith, through which shines our hope of life after death.
In Passion plays during the Middle Ages, the story typically opened by portraying Christ praying fervently in the Garden of Gethsemane right before his arrest. The scene might perplex those who don’t realize that Jesus’ Passion was part of God’s plan to redeem mankind ever since Adam and Eve fell from grace.
Jesus knew the whole plan and told his friends exactly what would happen. “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:33-34)
As a child I liked the story of baby Jesus in the manger, but I didn’t understand why he grew up to suffer. Couldn’t he have died peacefully as an old man surrounded by his friends? And if he knew he was going to be crucified, why didn’t he run away?
Later, I realized Jesus himself answered these questions by saying, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
He willingly endured a horrendous death out of love for all mankind—past, present and future. That includes atheists, agnostics, Jews, Gentiles, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and people of every stripe, color and creed.
Jesus came into the world to redeem the war-torn, the weary, the sick, the hungry, the desperate and the dying. Looking in the mirror, I am stunned to realize he died for me.
When Christians gaze at the figure of Christ upon the cross, we weep for the savaged and broken man, especially when we imagine his unspeakable pain, but with the eyes of faith we glimpse the deeper truth. His outstretched arms are reaching to embrace us.
The awe and mystery of the Passion story is that God, pierced and bloodied, endured suffering and death to tell us the one thing we have such trouble believing. He loves us.
And when we find ourselves in our own private Gardens of Gethsemane, only the cross can make sense of our suffering. A few years ago, a cancer diagnosis had me on my knees, weeping with Jesus, “Let this cup pass from me.”
Still, when the worst happens, we look at the one on the cross who triumphed over terrible suffering and know we will too. The cross shows us God isn’t removed from our agonies. He weeps with us.
Growing up, I didn’t understand why people said Jesus had died for my sins. I wasn’t alive back then, so obviously I hadn’t had a chance to sin. Later, I realized the cross mystically transcended time—and Christ died for the total evil of the world.
“When I sin now, I as surely crucify God as did the soldiers on the hill of Golgotha,” wrote Gerald Vann in “The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God.”
The great news is that God’s love is infinitely merciful. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” Jesus said while he was dying—and he was talking about us.
The cross by itself is depressing. Good Friday without Easter Sunday is unbearable. The crucifixion was not the final word, because three days later, when Jesus’ friends rush to the tomb, it is empty.
“He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said,” the angel tells them—and those words echo in our hearts today.
Seeing a movie about Jesus’ intense suffering may bring us to tears, but as Mother Teresa warned in “No Greater Love”: “Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ risen.”
My favorite Gospel story comes at the end of John’s narrative. It is dawn and Peter and the disciples are fishing when they see a man on the shore. When they realize who it is, Peter jumps overboard and swims toward him, while the rest follow in the boat.
The man is the risen Jesus, and he is cooking fish for his friends over a charcoal fire. What joy they must have felt to see him still caring for them. And what a perfect closing scene in a love story that goes on forever.
Lorraine Murray works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University. She is the author of “Why Me? Why Now?” and “Grace Notes.” You can e-mail her at email@example.com.