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)

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