As Christ's Passion Becomes Ours

By Francis Frangipane
    
What is it about The Passion of the Christ that stirs people so deeply?  After all, it is just a movie, isn't it?  Yet, Mel Gibson's portrait of Christ and His sufferings, for many, has awakened emotions people never knew they had; it resurrects longings many thought were dead.

The power of this movie is that it speaks to the very DNA of our spiritual identity as Christians. It does not matter whether we are Lutherans or Catholics, Baptists or Pentecostals, something fundamental about ourselves is being unearthed from antiquity and restored to our souls.

Let me explain.

There is a reason why societies memorialize those who, through their sacrifice or courage, were instrumental in shaping their cultural identity.  To forget the legacy of one's forefathers is to actually lose some essence of who we are as a unique people. Thus, we honor our founders and heros by creating memorials to them. We erect statues, name airports and cities after them and even have national holidays in remembrance of their sacrifices and accomplishments.

Yet, the power of our memorials goes beyond the tribute they offer to the past; they actually connect us to our heritage.  For what we truly memorialize, we internalize and make a living part of our souls.  Thus, each time a succeeding generation honors a national hero, as they appreciate what made their leaders great, the essence of those values is transferred to them.

As our technology advances, our ability to memorialize has taken modern expressions. For African Americans, the book and movie Roots helped define the uniqueness of the black journey in America.  While the movie touched and taught people in general, for those of African American descent, it went much deeper: for many, it was a summary season that connected them with the genesis of their own souls.  The movie communicated more than information; it brought with it impartation from the generations of Africans who suffered and died in slavery.  It said: Here is the great price our forebears paid. We owe it to them to prosper in this land of our affliction.

Roots was not just a movie; it became a memorial.

The Jewish people also have their unique memorials.  Established in a number of different cities around the world are Holocaust museums, which are memorials to Jewish suffering.  For those of us who are Gentiles, we visit, we are touched and we come away with a better understanding and love for the Jewish people.  Seeing the history of their persecution helps us appreciate the passion Jews have for their homeland, Israel. Yet, the images of mass open graves and ovens, of people standing in lines before gas chambers, penetrate much deeper into the soul of a Jew.  They see the sufferings of the Holocaust generation and it adds something to their soul, a mandate which rises in their hearts: Never again; never forget!

Such is the nature of memorials: they compel us to remember the sacrifice; they command us to never forget.

Yet, strangely, Christians have not had a memorial dedicated to the sufferings of Christ.  Our "Passion plays" and gospel movies are carefully scripted to inspire, but not to offend.  We memorialize His life, but not the passions of His death.  We know theologically of His sufferings, but we have not truly seen them.  In fact, because we know the outcome of the story, even before the scourging and crucifixion scenes are over, our focus shifts ahead to His resurrection. 

But in failing to linger, in refusing to gaze steadfastly upon the sorrow and assimilate its staggering cost, we unconsciously cheapen His sacrifice.  As we detach ourselves from the price, its impact in us is proportionally diminished. 

Just as memorializing the Holocaust continues to serve, even to this day, in defining modern Israel, so The Passion of the Christ brings Christians face-to-face with the cost of our redemption. It cuts us deeply.  We, too, are wounded as we see the degree of His wounding; we also are broken by the depth of His brokenness.  Sobs can be heard in the theater.  Why are we crying? Didn't we know the story? Yes.  We knew the facts, but not the ongoing torture, the abandonment and rejection, the injustice or unspeakable pain. The cost is being transferred to us.

The movie rescues Christ's sacrifice from the realm of cerebral information and secures its power in the holy place of our hearts.  Yes, the movie wounds us, but it also heals us by letting us see the demonstration of Christ's love for us.

Must we have the violent images?  Yes, the unrelenting torture and the merciless cruelty are the backdrop of darkness that contrasts the brightness of Christ's sacrifice for mankind.  To leave them out or minimize the account is to subtract from the totality of His gift. 

The word holocaust, legitimately used by Jews to describe their sufferings in Nazi death camps, means "a sacrificial offering entirely consumed."  It is a biblical term.  Christ's sacrifice was exactly this -- a sacrifice entirely consumed for us.

The critics rage, not merely because they are angry, but because they are afraid. The truth of Christ's love is too powerful to allow back into the mainstream of secular life.  For years a vocal, but small minority has sought to remove all but the memory of God from society, but even the memory of what Christ did for us is powerful enough to transform the world.

For many Christians, The Passion of the Christ is not just another movie; it is a memorial to His suffering for our sins.  In seeing, we remember, and the power of His sacrifice restores our souls.