Saturday, February 28, 2004

How essential is the PHYSICAL suffering of Christ to salvation?


One aspect of the controversy around Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ is the degree of violence in the film.

There are certain things we know about Crucifixion from medical science. Given that Roman tyranny was well known, it is possible and perhaps probable that the Crucifixion of Jesus was worse than what is described in the Gospel accounts but that would be speculative.

Gibson has chosen to emphasize the suffering of Christ beyond what is described in the Gospel accounts; thus, I posed the question in the title of this post to some friends who have a great interest in theology.

Up to this point, I have received two responses. I've made some minor edits of their responses for clarity and brevity.

One said:
I do not think that the actual (amount of) physical suffering is essential. I think that the death is the important thing. Physical suffering plays a bigger role in Catholic doctrine compared to Protestant theology. This difference is why the Crucifix with Christ on it is standard in Catholic churches and the empty cross in the Protestant.
Another said:
Yes, it is important.

1. Prophecy indicated that he would suffer physically. Isaiah 53:5 says, but he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

Thus, for him to fulfill prophecy, he needed to suffer physically. Of course, this prophecy does not demand he endure the WORST type of suffering, but he certainly needed to suffer physically to some degree.
 
2. If he did not suffer physically, he could not fully relate (from a human perspective) to the physical/emotional sufferings we experience. Certainly, the mere fact that he limited himself to as a human and experienced physical death is enough, but it's a lot easier to pray to a God who physically suffered far more than what we will likely experience. He's "been there, done that," so he understands us.

3. Although this is not a theological point, his sufferings help us realize the "full extent of his love" for us. If he would suffer to *this* degree, surely he must really love us. And if he's willing to give up himself for us to this degree, surely he's worthy of my total devotion and commitment and love.

4. His sufferings also highlight the absolute injustice (from man's perspective) of his death. He is sinless and perfect, yet he dies the worst death possible. Christ suffered even though he didn't deserve it.

5. His suffering and death could be a picture of God pouring out His wrath on sin.
Andrew Sullivan isn't a theologian but agree or disagree, he almost always has something interesting to say.

Click here for his comments. Excerpt:
Would our sins have been expiated if Jesus had only been flogged twenty rather than forty times? (The Gospels do not tell us how brutal this process was. For some reason, the evangelists reduced the episode to a couple of sentences. Gibson makes the flogging the centerpiece of the whole film.) If Jesus had been roped to the cross and died of asphyxiation, rather than being nailed there, would we still not be saved? If the nails had been placed in his wrists rather than his palms, would we not have been redeemed? Of course some of these details are there in the Gospels; but Gibson's loving obsession with them, his creepy love of watching extreme violence, is nowhere found in the Gospels.

Let's take a few clear examples. The Gospels do not tell us that the jailers of the High Priests beat Jesus to a pulp before he was even delivered to the Romans, or that he was thrown in chains over a prison wall, almost garrotting him. That's Gibson's sadistic embellishment - so that Jesus already has one eye shut from bruises before he is even tried. The Gospels do not say that the flogging of Jesus was so extreme and out of control that a centurion had to stop it because it had gone beyond any of the usual bounds of Roman punishment. That again is Gibson's invention. In the crucifixion scene, the Gospels do not say that in hoisting the cross, it fell down by accident so that Jesus was pinned headfirst between the cross and the earth, his crown of thorns thrust even deeper into his skull. Again, that's Gibson's interpolation. It's as if Gibson's saying that being crucified isn't bad enough - you've got be crushed face down by timber first if you are going to save all mankind.

I repeat that there is something deeply disturbed about this film. Its extreme and un-Biblical fascination with human torture reflects, to my mind, not devotion to the message of the Cross but a kind of psycho-sexual obsession with extreme violence that Gibson has indulged in many of his other movies and is now trying to insinuate into Christianity itself.
Here is an email to Sullivan that he posted that disagreed with him. Excerpt:
I saw The Passion of The Christ last night. I am still processing through what I saw and how I feel about it. The only thing I can say for sure right now is that it was, without question, the single most disturbing thing I have ever seen.
.......
I have been a Christian for most of my life. I have done a lot of missions work and, I've felt, have served Jesus well. I have thought of myself as a pretty good person who never did anything terribly wrong. But I did do something terribly wrong. I am complicit in, and responsible for, the savage murder of an innocent man, of my Lord. My faith demands that I accept this truth. I am equally complicit with every other person who ever has, and ever will walk this earth.

This Passion brought that point home with me in a totally new way. I've always known Jesus'? death was terrible. Always knew he died for me. But never really thought through just how horrible and terrifying it must have been. Watching this movie was, to me, like being there as a witness to the act. As one complicit in His death, I might as well have been one of those shouting "Crucify!" I might as well have spat on Him, laughed at Him, placed the crown of thorns upon His head, and driven the nails into His hands. It was for my sins that He embraced the cross and willingly paid the terrible price. All my life I have taken Christ's sacrifice for granted without ever really considering the true cost of the cross in terms of the brutal and savage pain I inflicted upon the Savior. That is what I find most disturbing. It's also why I can never be the same after watching "The Passion of The Christ."
Be sure to check out this analysis of the film. Excerpt:
From mosaics and music to paintings and plays, the arts have proven to be a mighty vehicle for retelling the Bible and bringing its stories vividly before our senses. A special intensity marks the art created for the Lenten period. Allegri’s Miserere, the moving rendition of Psalm 51 sung on Good Friday, Niccolo dell'Arca’s Lamentation of the Dead Christ with its terra-cotta figures circling in wild grief over the dead Christ, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poetic journey lasting from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, are but a few of the great Lenten works that can move the imagination to consider different aspects of the passion. In The Passion of the Christ, scheduled to open in theatres on Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson adds a work of cinematic art worthy to be mentioned with these classics of Christian culture.
.......
It is thus demonstrably difficult to satisfy the demands of cinematic art and canonical text. But Gibson’s Passion is a new kind of film which does just that. In the tradition of Lenten art, he focuses intensely on the climatic moment of the Christ saga, intensifying the power of its sacramental aspects. From the agony in the garden, where Gibson begins, to the pietà at the foot of the cross, Jesus does what he teaches. In the sacred text itself, the last twelve hours of his life contain only the tersest dialogue. The parables have all been spoken. The disciples have slunk away. From here, the question of the Christ is telescoped by Gibson into what we see—or, more accurately, what we are able to watch.
........
Ultimately, The Passion of the Christ is about witnessing and bearing witness. On one level, the film is calculated to make us want to turn away and go home. At the outset, Jesus tells his disciples in the garden that he doesn't want them to see him in such a condition. He worries about what they are soon to see: a suffering servant who looks like anything but a king, and whose tortured body will seem quite beyond repair.

Thankfully, as the scenes become harder and harder to watch, the viewer is offered an example, a guide as to how we are supposed to react to the increasingly disturbing images. This comes in the form of Jesus' mother, brilliantly played by the Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern. Though Mary is the person most affected by these shattering events, she also understands better than anyone the necessity of what her son must do, and she consents to his mission and her own role in it. She in turn shows the audience what they must do. During the scourging, we see Mary with her head lowered, barely able to support herself as she hears the incessant beating of her son. As we think to ourselves, "no mother should have to witness such a thing," she gathers her strength, lifts her head, and continues to look. If she can, we can. Then, in the harrowing pietà scene at the end of the film, Mary looks directly out at the viewer as she holds the body of Christ, reminding us with her glance that we, too, have been witnessing these events, and that it is now we who are called to bear witness to what we have seen. Like Caravaggio’s Deposition, Gibson’s film places the bulk of responsibility on the viewer.

This emphasis on the role of Mary far outstrips what Pasolini or Zeffirelli was able to imagine. Where Zeffirelli’s Mary, played by the hauntingly lovely Olivia Hussey, elicits compassion, Gibson’s Mary provides comfort. Like the Eve who accompanies Adam in every scene in the Sistine Chapel vault, Mary, it seems, is always present in Gibson’s Passion. Her face is the most reliable clue to the meaning of the unfolding events.

She is paralleled on screen by Satan, played by Rosalinda Celentano as a black-cowled, androgynous bystander. After the scourging, Satan holds a grotesque child in mockery of the old Adam, and also of Mary’s eventual pieta. Then there is the remarkable confrontation in the film between Satan and Mary. As Jesus climbs towards Calvary, Satan glides through the crowd, feeding on the tangible wickedness in the air; Mary is on the other side of the road, trying to reach her son. She locks eyes with Satan, as determined as Satan is smug. Gibson’s disturbing technique of filling the screen with Jesus’ body, almost allowing him to tumble into our laps, is contained visually only by the fact that Mary constantly touches, holds, and comforts the corpus. We find ourselves thinking, "thank God someone else will keep this mess from falling onto us."
Those comments made me think of the 15th century Polish Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery used by Gorecki in the haunting First Movement of his Symphony No. 3 (Op. 36) and a short text from the Bible.
My son, chosen and loved,
Let your mother share your wounds
And since, my dear son,
I have always kept you in my heart,
And loyally served you,
Speak to your mother,
make her happy,
Though, my dear hope,
you are now leaving me.
But there were standing by the cross of Jesus, His mother, and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then He said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her into his own household. -- Gospel According to St. John 19:25-27

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