Imagination, Storytelling,
and Film

Centre for Faith & Culture







2006 Tolkien Conference

2004 Summer Conference

Second Spring


The Passion of the Christ: A Reflection

Stratford Caldecott

It is, by any standards, remarkable that so many millions of people have flocked and are flocking to see a film that graphically portrays the last hours of Christ, his death and resurrection. In this age of hype, however, it is no proof that the Holy Spirit is at work, much as one would like to think so. Mel Gibson's fame, the controversies swirling around the film about anti-semitism and violence, and the strange nature of the project itself (a big-budget devotional movie in Latin and Aramaic, originally intended to go out without subtitles) might be sufficient explanation.

The spiritual hunger of our time is another factor that needs to be taken into account. The Cross, of course, remains a potent symbol at the heart of what is left of Western culture, but in Europe, at least many people grow up in ignorance of what it signifies. Modernity here seems to be moving beyond the stage of hostility to Christianity, beyond mere indifference, towards simple curiosity. It no longer listens to words – but it watches pictures, and it listens to music. Thus the success of the movie in commercial terms, if unpredicted beforehand, is understandable in retrospect. Understandable or not, however, it remains a tremendous achievement. A Christian movie-maker has put his career on the line, and in the face of worldwide ridicule has succeeded in creating a film that millions want to see, a film that engages the culture at a deep and popular level – precisely the level at which Christian evangelism is otherwise failing dismally.

I went to see it with trepidation, being (as I thought) rather sensitive to screen violence. I could not watch the execution scene in Braveheart, and I expected this to be worse – and much longer. I was nervous for another reason. Many devout people I greatly respect had told me to expect a life-changing spiritual experience. I was told I would never be the same again. I was told that at least one woman had died of heart attack during the crucifixion scene; that others had only got through it by praying intensely the whole time.

I was, in the event, disappointed. Probably I was unconsciously protecting myself against the impact of the film. The suffering left me unmoved because I knew it was unreal. More seriously, I wondered about the historical authenticity of the film. It has been pointed out that conversations would have been in Greek rather than Latin. People have asked whether the soldiers would have beaten Christ so brutally on the way to his "trial" and, later, whether they would have kept knocking him down as he carried the Cross, or dislocated his arm in order to bang in the nails (these are shown going through the palms not the wrists). Much of this brutality is drawn from the Dolorous Passion of Anne Catherine Emmerich rather than from the Gospels. It also seemed unlikely that the Jewish leaders would have stood at the foot of the Cross itself. Would that not have rendered them ritually unclean? Would they not rather have mocked from a safe distance, perhaps even from inside the city walls? Was Pilate, by contrast, the civilized and attractive figure that the movie portrays? Then at times the whole thing seemed melodramatic. A repentant Judas is persecuted by demonic children. The bad thief mocks Christ and immediately a great black raven settles on his cross and pecks out his eye. To me the symbolism seemed grossly overdone.

Yet the film contains many wonderful and memorable moments, and several of these involve the Virgin Mary. In flashback we see an exchange between her and Jesus in the carpenter's workshop. Jesus has just completed a table for a rich man, and Mary criticizes it for being too tall. "Do rich men like to eat standing up?" she asks. Jesus replies, "No, I am making tall chairs to go with it." Her response, after a long pause – "It will never catch on" – causes Jesus to throw a bowl of water over her. Not exactly a scene from the Gospels, but it adds a much-needed human dimension to the story. If only there had been more of that! The brief scenes of Jesus teaching, on the Mount and at the Last Supper, seemed stilted in comparison. I was glad they were there, but they were somehow unconvincing. There is a wonderful moment when Jesus draws a line in the dust to save the adulteress from those who would stone her, but the image would be confusing to anyone not already familiar with the story. (Biblical scholars, of course, object to the film's identification of this woman with Mary Magdalen, but that is another question.) I wanted more of a sense of the personality of Jesus, which might have been given through a few more or longer flashbacks.

These are quibbles, perhaps. No one should expect perfection from a movie, and the many crudities simply underline the fact that the film, despite some of the exaggerated claims made on its behalf, is deliberately more symbolic and iconic than historically realistic. Viewed as such, it is much more interesting and effective. As many people have remarked, Mary's role in the Passion (as co-redeemer) comes out especially strongly. An ordinary mother would have screamed and cried at what was being done to her son. Mary weeps, certainly, but she also consents to what she knows her Son must undergo. "So be it," she says at one point; and "It has begun." She asks him from the foot of the Cross if she can die with him - at which point he entrusts her to the disciple John (though, interestingly and possibly anachronistically, she is referred to as "Mother" even before this by the small community of disciples). She keeps pace with Jesus on the Way of the Cross, as does the parallel figure of the Devil in feminine form, who bears an aged child through the crowds on the other side of Jesus. The most powerful moment for many people is the encounter of Mary and Jesus as he stumbles under the Cross and lifts it up again onto his bloodied shoulders. As their eyes meet he says, "See, Mother, I make all things new."

One of the great achievements of the film may be to help Evangelicals, who would normally be suspicious of the Catholic emphasis on Mary, to see her central motherly role in the Church as entirely "natural". Through her, humanity as a whole is represented in the Passion. The film itself is an attempt to "remember" the sacrifice of Christ in the light of her perfect faith and loving response. Another achievement that Catholics have rightly celebrated is Mel Gibson's identification of the self-offering of Christ on the Cross with the offering of bread and wine at the Last Supper, shown in flashback. As in the case of the Virgin Mary, the film has brought one of the key teachings of Catholicism into the foreground, but in a way that surely must make better sense to Protestants presented as story than it does wrapped up in theology.

The Question of Violence

Each day since I saw the movie I have reflected on my own reactions to it. There is a lot to reflect about, and I want to share some of these further reflections with you, for reasons that will become clearer shortly.

While I was not convinced by the make-up department on the whole, a couple of moments did make me wince. When the Roman soldiers, in the very caricature of a sadistic frenzy, are lashing Christ with a whip strung with metal barbs, one of them strikes so hard the barbs lodge deep in the Lord's back, and when he yanks them out a spray of blood hisses out over the soldiers, who laugh gleefully. Now that gruesome detail, along with others, stuck in my mind. But it did not help me to pray: far from it. This makes me wonder about the use of violence in the film, especially since most viewers find it extremely hard to take all the way through.

The Catholic Church has long regarded meditation on the stages of the Passion of Christ as an appropriate devotion for Lent and Easter. St Francis of Assisi wept over the sufferings of Christ. Penitents for centuries used to flagellate themselves in order to share those sufferings. Whole orders of priests were schooled for martyrdom, so that they could help to "make up what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ" (Col. 1:24). Generations of Catholics have followed the Stations of the Cross displayed on the walls of their churches. The Jesuits specialized in a spiritual method that included visualization of scenes from the Gospels, including the Way of Calvary. These things mark the development of a certain distinct spirituality of devotion to the humanity of Christ. Meditation on the physical details of the Passion helps to bring home to us the extent of Christ's love. It shows us that our own sufferings unite us with him, and are actually present to him as parts of his own sacrifice. They are the ways in which he chooses to bear our own sins and those of the world.

Yet it is not the physical pain that is inflicted upon him which works our salvation from sin and death, but rather the spirit in which that pain is received, the love with which it was borne. That spirit would have been the same no matter how great or how little the physical affliction. ("The value is not in the suffering but in the soul's desire," in the words of St Catherine of Siena.) In fact, while meditation on the sufferings of Christ is an important part of Christian spirituality, salvation itself comes to us not through meditation but through faith in the Risen Christ and the reception of the sacraments, beginning with baptism. The Cross was an instrument, and the Passion is a central part of the drama of the Incarnation. We have to remember that the sacrifice of Christ is present to us now primarily in the Eucharist, not through our own efforts at the imaginative reconstruction of his Passion.

Among the Orthodox, this film tends to be received less sympathetically than among Catholics and Evangelicals precisely because the devotional tradition it belongs to is so characteristically Western. The distinguished Orthodox Biblical scholar, Fr Thomas Hopko, writes as follows: "It seems to me that Mel Gibson's Passion is a monotonous and misleading exaggeration of one aspect of the scriptural Christ's suffering and death to a distorting degree. His Jesus is God's suffering servant whose passion is virtually reduced to his being ridiculed and beaten with a sadistic brutality far beyond what the four gospels record. The film's relentless emphasis on Christ's physical sufferings …capture the viewer's attention and serve more to conceal, rather than reveal, the fullness and depth of the Passion's multiple meanings." (However, other Orthodox commentators have taken a different line, even recommending it for everyone to see. Fr Patrick Reardon, for example, writes: "there is nothing ‘shocking' or emotionally wrenching here, unless one has neglected the traditional pieties of the Church.")

In the 8th century the Church approved the making of images of Christ. But icons as understood in the Orthodox Church since that date are partly symbolic in nature. They are deliberately not naturalistic in every detail but formal and stylized according to certain strict conventions. Artistic naturalism really took off in Western art after the division of the churches in the eleventh century, and to the Orthodox it remains problematic, at least in the representation of the saints. If the saint is presented to the faithful for veneration, he or she should be portrayed as in heaven. Elements or reminders of the earthly life, of course, remain associated with the image, for the earthly life of the saint is integrated into the heavenly. In the same way, holy images of the saints in Western hagiography contain the tokens of earthly life (the wheel of St Catherine, the set-square of St Joseph, and so on). However, they tend to portray the saint in a naturalistic earthly setting, whereas the intention of the icon is not to focus on the earthly life as it was lived in the past, but rather on the life in eternity, which includes that earthly life in a higher form.

The movie obviously cannot be called "iconic" in the strict sense. It presents itself in the guise of entertainment. It concentrates on the last hours of Christ's earthly life, albeit in the light of a faith that derives from the Resurrection. And it takes the Western tradition of devotional art to a new level through the use of modern technology. There are dangers associated with such a vivid work of photographic realism applied to such a subject. By their very distance from the subject depicted, traditional frescoes, carvings, stained glass and passion-plays acted as a support and a stimulus for the imaginative process: they nourished the imagination. Pseudo-realistic images tend, on the other hand, to overload and overwhelm it. A passion play was a form of engagement with the drama of the Gospel. It is a very different experience from sitting in a cinema, watching a movie that depends for its effect on convincing us that we are seeing things as they actually were. Does one really want to spend several hours watching anyone, let alone the person one loves most in the world, being treated in this way, even if one knows that these things (or something like them) really happened? Christ was willing to suffer all that for our sakes: but does he really want us to watch it on screen in this way?

Mel Gibson has also admitted in interviews that because people cannot be expected to sit through two hours of unremitting, ugly violence he made the film as beautiful, as "lyrical", as possible. This brings us to another danger. Violent images have a power to wound us.  To make violence beautiful to watch is to give the images of violence a greater power to cling to the soul. The images in this film will intrude in our prayer life, for better or worse, for many years to come. The Gospels themselves do not dwell on the details of the brutality inflicted upon Jesus. There is nothing morbid about them; and equally there is nothing sentimental. The movie, on the other hand, aims to stimulate an emotional response, and so it is necessarily more "sentimental" than the Gospels. This is not Gibson's fault, but something to do with the nature of the medium. Unless the emotions it evokes are then transmuted and transposed onto another level through prayer, they are unlikely to uplift the viewer to a real contemplation of Christ. Most Christian mystics have warned against precisely this power of the imagination to disturb the soul and prevent genuine contemplation, although for others (including Julian of Norwich and, of course, Anne Catherine Emmerich) contemplation and imagination are inseparable.


It is too early to tell what the real effects of the film will be, and whether the sensation that it has caused at its opening will blow over within few years like that which attended The Last Temptation of Christ. The new film, though deeply devout and traditional in nature, is still not for everyone. I find it sad that that many devout admirers of the film seem to view any criticism as tantamount to disloyalty towards the Catholic faith itself. No doubt some objections are based on a desire to downplay or discount the literal truth of the Gospels. Some are based on a squeamish desire to forget the harshness of the Crucifixion and cling, instead, to a decorous and genteel image that bears little relation to reality. The accusations of anti-semitism may also be misguided (that is a subject I do not propose to explore). But there may be other, more legitimate reasons for shying away from such a violent depiction of the life of Christ – reasons which I have tried to articulate above. I do not think people should be pressured into seeing it, particularly if they already have a devotion to Christ which does not depend on such shocking stimulation.

These are real questions, real concerns. And yet, and yet, I am still torn. It was a genuine devotion to Christ that inspired the film-maker; and that devotion is bound to have an effect on others who see it so vividly expressed, especially if they have not encountered it before. For many people, the "form" of Christ, of the Trinitarian love he came to reveal, does shine through the film despite the limitations of the medium. In a world that has largely forgotten Christ, the film brings the image of his almost unthinkable sacrifice to life in their imagination for the first time. I am haunted by some of the brutality, but perhaps as time goes by and those images do fade, I may find that what lives in my imagination are the genuinely iconic moments of the film: the face of a man crowned with thorns or staggering under a Cross; the face of a Mother gazing our of the screen with her dead Son laid across her lap. I may find myself in the position of the bewildered Simon of Cyrene, who in the film represents the ordinary viewer suddenly dragooned into the heart of the story, at first protesting, but later (having walked with Christ) changed by a love that will not let him go.

It was strange that the film followed so closely on the heels of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which was sweeping the Oscars just at the time people were pouring into cinemas to watch The Passion of the Christ. Frodo, too, walks the Way of the Cross. In an age of great suffering, in a world that has lost its bearings, this is the archetypal journey that we most need and desire to understand, as people seem to have instinctively understood. But Frodo is not the One who could bear the burden of sin, symbolized by the Ring, as Tolkien (a devout Catholic) knew very well. That is why he fails, in the end, to cast the Ring into the Fire and instead it is taken from him by Gollum. Christ, as portrayed by Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson's movie, struggles, falls under the weight, but ultimately conquers. That conquest, working backwards through time, is what brings about the providential destruction of the Ring in Tolkien's mythical pre-history. It is not simply the torture of a man that we are watching, but the torture of God, in which all human struggles are comprehended and integrated.

The whole action of Gibson's movie is anticipated, in a sense, by the opening scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. No one has yet laid a finger on him, but knowing what is about to take place, Christ pleads with his Father and wrestles with his human fear to such a degree that the blood is forced out through the pores of his skin. Yet when he stands victorious, he is able decisively to crush the serpent at his feet. It is a spiritual battle, waged on our behalf, and the Devil is shown defeated at the end, cast into the wilderness. It seems that what the catechists and apologists of our time have failed to convey to a whole generation is summed up in those unforgettable images. Seeing them, after seeing newsreel footage of weeping, bloodied crowds in the wake of suicide bombing or earthquake, is to make the connection between the Passion of Christ and the evil that runs rampant in the world. It is the same evil. What is done to us, all over the world, is done to Christ. Those innocent children, molested and tortured, are no less innocent than him, and he suffers with them and in them.

We ask why God permits such evil to happen to us. But he permits it to happen to his own Son, which is even more mysterious. And he does it in order to explode evil from within. The final victory of the Passion is something so dramatic that Gibson's film, rightly, only hints at it in the last few seconds.