Saturday, February 28, 2004

Are We Good Thieves or Bad Thieves?

Last night was the first Friday of Lent but, for me, it was like no other. As I wrote yesterday, the movie about which everyone is talking, The Passion of the Christ, is more than a movie. It is best described as a living, "moving" meditation on what Our Lord willingly endured to redeem us.

I know that I am not alone when I say that meditating upon the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary will never be the same for me. I again "see" Our Lord in the Garden, I see Satan tempting Him (and asking this Man who keeps appealing to the Father, "Who are you?"), I "see" that most terrible Scourging, the incalculable cruelty of the Crown of Thorns, the painful exhaustion in carrying the Cross, the Lord crawling to that Cross and stretching Himself upon It...

It was no different when our parish priest led The Stations of the Cross last night.

Sometime in the late hours, the thought came to me that those who are making the outrageous statements against this moving meditation, The Passion of the Christ, as well as those who criticize Mel Gibson's movie with the most trivial, quibbling remarks, are no different that those who refused to see who He truly was, who lied in the High Priest's kangaroo court, or who screamed 2,000 years ago, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!"

And even worse, there were those who were not moved to pity after seeing Our Lord mercilessly scourged, almost to death, and those who wanted him permanently removed still demanded not only His death, but a criminal's death by His Crucifixion.

Just like you and me, all those who have seen the movie have also been offered the opportunity to remember their Savior's sufferings. The Holy Ghost teaches, "Forget not the kindness of thy Surety, for He hath given His life for thee."

As the book, Meditation on the Passion, reminds us: "The Passion of Jesus Christ is the surest means of kindling love...We see in His Sacred Passion what the forgiveness of our sins cost Him, and how much He has forgiven us. We see how His love was so great that He suffered, not for His friends alone, but for sinners; for those who neglected, outraged, and insulted Him, that He might win them to God. Then how can we fail to love Him, who loved us and gave Himself for us? Meditation on Jesus' suffering is a subject well calculated to hearten and encourage us; to make us ashamed of our moral weakness and spiritual cowardice in the past; to stir us up in high aspirations, and help us to set before ourselves noble ideals in the future." (p. 17)

Those of us who can respond to The Passion of the Christ with any criticism other than the self-criticism, "I am guilty," lack what My Imitation of Christ calls "compunction of heart."

Those criticizers, may God forgive them, need a few responses from Catholics. What should those responses be? The Catholic response must be what Our Lord expects of us:

Forgiveness, prayer and sacrifice for them, our fellow sinners.

Let us always remember that Our Lord interceded with Our Father in Heaven for every person on earth - those that are, those that were, and those that are yet to be born.

Let us always remember that He interceded for all sinners, each of us who, to our great shame, have - at one time or another - mercilessly scourged Him, spat in His face, tore at His hair, ripped open His skin, mocked Him, and who showed Him not one ounce of pity: "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do."

And as we saw in The Passion of the Christ, Our Lord takes this abuse while pouring out His grace, until the time of grace in our own lives is over. But even grace is not enough.

We must accept each grace as it comes to us and use it as God intended. We don't "see" graces, and we don't hear least, not the way we expect. But they make themselves known.

We clearly saw these truths about grace with the actions of the Good Thief and the Bad Thief. While dying, there was one Thief who acknowledged his sins, who repented and who confessed. But there was one who mocked God and dared to question Him to His face! To the Unrepentant Thief's accusations, Our Lord said nothing. He seemingly did not hear, but He did. He did not respond but He waited...just as He still waits for sinners to come to Him. And we begin to understand when the Holy Scriptures tell us that Our Lord is "long-suffering"! And so the dying Lord waited...but for what?

The Lord on the Cross, whose very Presence is Grace, was waiting for the reaction of free will. And there was a good response, but it came only from the Good Thief.

Although also suffering great pain, the Good Thief, which Tradition names Dismas, was both alarmed and outraged by his former friend's mocking of Christ and asked in tortured breaths, "Don't you fear God?" And he went on. He declared the innocence of Christ while confessing their collective guilt.

Think of the Good Thief's honesty and charity. He used words like "We deserve" and "our crimes." He didn't just accuse the other thief; he included himself in the accusations! By doing so, he confessed his own sins to Our Lord, he accepted his death as punishment for his crimes, and finally asked Our Lord for one thing only..."Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom." By calling Jesus, "Lord," the Good Thief knew and publicly acknowledged that Jesus Christ is God.

And what of the Unrepentant Thief? When rebuked by the Good Thief, the unrepentant one had no more words to hurl against Our Lord. He had no defense at all. Instead of following the right example of the Good Thief, he instead chose to sink into final despair. He, like the Good Thief, could have repented and confessed his sins. He, like the Good Thief, could have offered his sufferings as reparation for his crimes. His own cross, like the Good Thief's, could have been a source of merit if only he had responded to God's grace by accepting it and offering it to God. But he did not. In his soul, he turned away, and the final grace offered him was lost.

Two sinners, both given the same grace to die alongside Our Lord, to repent and to confess their sins, to seek pardon,to offer their deaths in reparation for their sins, to receive God's forgiveness after confession, to pray, and to merit eternal salvation. But only one died in the state of sanctifying grace.

By confessing, and by seeking and receiving both forgiveness and absolution, the Good Thief died a Catholic in the state of grace. By offering up the punishment of death on the Cross for his crimes, he died with the promise of salvation. For Our Lord Himself said to him, "...this day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise." The Good Thief's soul went to Paradise, "the bosom of Abraham," the place for those who were saved, where there they waited until the day of Our Lord's Ascension so they, too, could follow Him into heaven.

And so, when other sinners see The Passion of the Christ and can only respond by mocking, arguing or quibbling instead of accepting the Truth set before them...

When others refuse to remember The Passion of the Christ was and is also for them...

When others fail to love Jesus Christ because He is their Lord and Savior, let us first remember that we also are sinners, but we are now Good Thieves, sinners who respond as we should to grace. Good Thieves are those Catholics who continually repent of our sins, who frequent the Sacament of Confesson, who seek forgiveness and absolution, who pray...and who accept our crosses for both punishment of our crimes and the purification of our souls.

Like the Good Thief's words in the movie, we might say to unbelievers, "He prays for you!" We can also say, "He died for you. He died for me." But we, too, must pray for the unbelievers and the fallen-aways.

And as we pray for the conversion of unrepentant sinners, let us also recall that "it becomes our duty to make reparation for their indifference and ingratitude. In proportion to the world's forgetfulness should be our remembrance. This solemn obligation rests on us all as Catholics." (Meditation on the Passion, p. v)

(Slightly edited from the first entry, posted February 28, 2004 to the original blog, Keeping It Catholic - with Marianna Bartold.)

Thursday, February 26, 2004

A Moving Meditation: Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"

I sit here, trying to collect my thoughts. I have literally been grieving since I saw The Passion of the Christ last night, the evening of Ash Wednesday. I did all that I could to prepare myself to see it. Throughout the years and with various books and prayers (like the Rosary), I have meditated upon what He endured for us. I prayed for strength and courage to view The Passion. And yet, I didn't want to see this movie; I felt I didn't need to see it to believe - but it might be what I needed. For what? To truly see. Why? To experience what is called "the second conversion," to know with my whole being what He endured, to understand it, to love Him more, to possess perfect contrition ever after.

But seeing this movie is not just "seeing" a movie. It is a profound, life-transforming experience. Any Catholic with a modicum of faith who sees The Passion will become a living witness, a disciple, not "just" a believer and a practicing Catholic. Protestants will understand The Passion in a way never before explained to them. I believe this for I sat next to a Protestant woman with whom I had conversed earlier. She wept as I did; she said afterward she had no idea...Total unbelievers who may see it should walk out converted. It is morally impossible to see The Passion and leave it with any other thought than, "My Lord and my God! Forgive me!"

Words only cheapen The Passion and no words of mine will ever do it justice. I hope what I say doesn't seem cheap, because anything I have to say may sound contrived. Please know that it isn't; it comes from a mere human heart, a woman's heart, a mother's heart. And so I will write as best I can, to share what I saw and what I experienced.

First, would I see it again? I bring that question up because it's already been asked of me. My answer: Seeing The Passion again would, I believe, also cheapen it. Would one want to see one's Beloved tortured again? Die once more? Once is enough. Once should be enough. Ever afterward, adoration and supplication and thanksgiving at Mass, as frequently as possible, will almost be enough to show the Christ how much sorrow I have for my sins but how much I love Him for the Redemption.

The Passion of the Christ is what its title says it is: It is about what the Christ - the one and only Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the Lord and the Savior - endured for us, what the worst that perverted human imagination and human brutality could thrust on Him. Many times during the course of the movie experience, Jesus spoke to the Father in heaven, renewing the offering of His sacrifice. "My heart is ready, Father..." were the words He uttered before He was whipped, raked, and literally ripped during the Scourging. "My Heart" - the Sacred Heart!

When the Cross is thrust upon Him - and we who know the story by heart are horrified to see a Man so brutally tortured also expected to carry this Cross - He is kneeling, but He literally embraces It. And He is mocked for it. Throughout The Passion, the cruelty of man never ends; neither does the meekness of Our Lord as He utterly submits Himself.

To say this movie is about anything else other than the Lord, the Christ, the Messiah taking upon the sins of the world is indefensible. I feel it is unworthy of any Christian to bother acknowledging those who believe it will rouse anti-Semitism. What it did rouse for me, and should rouse for others, is a greater aversion to committing any sin. After seeing The Passion, life on this earth recedes. Our small and big problems are reduced to nothingness.

I wept in the movie as I weep when I am anticipating a death or when grieving a death. I realized later that my right hand was constantly over my heart, in an agony of anxiety, when it wasn't lifted to my face to wipe away tears.

I empathized with Peter when he crashed to his knees in front of our dear Lady, who put her hands out to console him, and he recoiled and cried out, "Mother! I am not worthy!...Mother, I denied Him!" Think of it. Mother. Think of it. A Confession! Each of us can cry out those words, because we've all denied Christ in some way. Don't we deny Him when we sin? My Father in Heaven, I ask Thee with all my heart to grant me this grace: To never again deny Christ, in any way. Mother, I am not worthy but please ask Your Son for this grace, for He denies you nothing because you ask nothing that is not in comformity with His will, and He wills our salvation. [From Meditation on the Passion, by Rev. Walsh]

The scourging scene can never be goes on and on. One watches, and one recoils, and one sickens, and one wonders, "How could they do this to Him? How did He endure that? Stop it. Stop it. STOP!" And Our Lady asks a question, one that is so very human and yet shows plainly that she knew Who He truly was.

As my husband Tim and I left the theatre, he was silent and I was trembling and dizzy, as though I had been holding my breath too long. I looked at all the people waiting in line - there were so many. A part of me wanted to stand apart from them, walk by unnoticed in my grief; a part of me wanted to say something to all of them. Bits and pieces of thoughts went through my mind. There was nothing I could say. Words don't do justice to the experience and I was immobilized by grief.

When we reached outside, I leaned against the wall and waited for the cool air to snap me out of it. It didn't. I told myself to snap out of it. I didn't. One does not just "snap out" of grief.
My husband Tim was quiet as he took my hand and walked with me across the parking lot. I should say, he walked me, because I had to hang onto his hand tightly so that his sheer force of will could help me take those steps. Otherwise, I would not have been able to move. As we walked, I could see brake lights across the distance. The line-up of cars trying to exit the parking lot was surreal.

Anyone who has lost a loved one for the very first time in their lives will understand exactly what I am talking about. The question that eventually comes to your mind as your grief intensifies, while everything around you is going on as though your grief didn't exist, is always, "How can the world go on as it has?"

I won't tell you how many times grief overwhelmed me. I will say it gripped me again when I thought I had managed to calm myself. And it hit me again when we quietly entered the only Catholic Church in town. In my line of vision were two men. I wanted to be alone with my husband; our grief was real and deeply personal. I looked to see if the confessionals were open. There was no priest in sight.

So I sat on one side of the church, but Tim urged me to go to the right side, where the Blessed Sacrament is kept. (At this particular parish, Our Lord also resides in a larger Tabernacle in the center of the church, as He should be, and so I cannot understand why this church has another smaller Tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament on the right side of the main altar; it is a grief to me since it misplaces Christ and it confuses, if not outright scandalizes, the faithful). There was a man already in a front pew near the Blessed Sacrament which rests on the right side of the church, so we took a seat across from him.

I took one look at the Blessed Sacrament exposed in that side Tabernacle, and the grief hit me again. I tried to contain it but I sobbed aloud; I couldn't help it. I bowed my head in sorrow and resigned myself to the grief that would not release me. That man in the pew across from us was very kind...he left for awhile and then came back with more tissues for me.

What happened in that church? I prayed inside a vortex, and the only two there were Jesus and me. But there was a third presence, and it was that of Our Blessed Mother. I looked at Christ within that monstrance and I could only think, "Lord, forgive me. Lord, don't ever let me forget. If ever I should even THINK of sinning, put your Passion right in front of my eyes." And then I prayed "Hail Mary's" repeatedly...

I later looked at a statue of Our Lady, and I thought, "Mother...forgive me, I have always been unworthy" and the tears came again. Every cheap joke I ever made, any stupid utterance, every selfish act...came to mind and my sins made me sick with grief. I'm a Catholic; I know better. I should have known better. Dear God, forgive me my weaknesses.

The thought that went through my mind as we left the quiet church? "Why aren't the priests here? The confessionals should be ready." Today, I am going to call the parish and speak with the pastor and respectfully ask him if he would consider timing Confessions after the local theatre's every showing of The Passion. People will be seeking Our Lord at the church; they should be able to find Him, both in the Tabernacle and in the Sacrament of Confession.

If this movie doesn't change peoples lives for the better, if it doesn't make people want to be as holy as they can be - let me correct myself! as holy as God desires them to be, the same God who desires not the death of a sinner! - I cannot imagine what else in this world can. The Passion brings perfect contrition, and a firm purpose of amendment to confess our sins, to do penance, and to amend our lives, which is only possible with the help of God's grace...
Go see this movie - this religious experience that transcends all time. It is more than a movie, but a "moving meditation" in more ways than one. Be prepared to have your life transformed in a way you really can not imagine. Surely, The Passion of the Christ is one of God's last mercies to this sinful generation.

(First posted February 26, 2004 to the original blog, Keeping It Catholic - with Marianna Bartold)