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Mel Gibson and the Scandal of the Cross

By John Mallon

I have to confess I haven't paid much attention to the controversy over Mel Gibson's new film, The Passion of The Christ. I haven't seen it, and frankly, (sorry Bob) I haven't even read all the volumnious coverage of it in Inside the Vatican. On the face of it the whole matter seems remarkably simple: The Cross is a scandal. A film made by a passionate believer, which depicts the Passion and Death of Jesus accurately is also going to create controversy, if not scandal.

I love to visit Europe for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is that I love to visit the Churches there. I love the art, statuary and especially the crucifixes one sees there. I love them because the agony of Jesus is usually graphically depicted. You often see Jesus portrayed with his eyes open and his body bloody. I do not like blood and gore for its own sake but the suffering of Christ ought to disturb us. It ought to evoke a sense of what He suffered for us; not in a morose or morbid sense but in the most real sense. This life is often a very painful place and reminders that Christ endured the worst of it for our sake can bolster, in our own hearts, His credibility as a salvation bringer. As the Salvation Bringer.

There has been an unfortunate tendency over the last 40 years, especially in the Church in the United States, to replace the categories of good and evil with discussion of "positive" and "negative," which results in a kind of "dumbing down" of the power of our faith. There has been a concerted effort to make the Church Christ founded into a "happy-face" Church. The Mass is turned into a social event and described as a "communal meal" and the sacrificial nature of Christ's death is played down. In my diocese almost every Catholic Church in the city sports a "resurrected Christ" crucifix as its main cross, featuring a fully dressed corpus with arms upraised in victory. Apparently, those who placed these crosses thought they portrayed a more "positive" message. I find them most disedifying. It is the central paradox of our faith that in the depths of the bloodiest evil and pain Christ won for us the greatest glory and greatest good which is our redemption. 

Years ago I commented on a high-profile pro-abortion Catholic politician who said, "My faith is a great comfort to me." I wrote, "Well, it shouldn't be," meaning that if his faith had any depth at all and his conscience any genuine formation he ought to be terrified for his soul over his support for abortion. When St. Paul spoke of working out his salvation with fear and trembling he wasn't "being negative" but realistic. He knew what sin did to Christ on the Cross and sensibly feared what it could do to him.

The old exorcism prayer speaks of "the Holy and Terrible Name of Jesus"—terrible in the original sense of the word where the terror of hell was turned on its head by the holiness of Christ. The more we play down the truth and terrible reality of the sufferings of Christ the greater danger we place ourselves in. Further, human suffering itself, so mysterious and confusing, finds no greater meaning and solace anywhere than in the cross of Christ, which is why the Mass has always been a home for suffering people whose pain has intimidated, embarrassed and alienated others who cannot comprehend. Christ understands. A "happy-face" community does not. The truth will set us free and that includes the truth about evil which emphasis on the "positive" or "negative" would seek to whitewash over like the walls and ceilings of so many of our glorious old churches.

The notion that Gibson's film will promote anti-semitism is a red herring. It is not a question of Christ being crucified by the Jews. The Church teaches He was crucified by me. And my sins—and you and yours. The message of the Jews calling for his crucifixion is a symbol of all of God's chosen people—all of us—crucifying Him today—as then—with our sins. 

If stupid and ignorant people wish to take this as an excuse to promote hatred of Jews nothing can stop them, but the abuse does not remove the use. The Church continually condemns this thinking for those who have ears to hear. By our sins we are all "Christ killers" who are nonetheless offered salvation by Him through the redemption of our very own evil by His suffering it. Furthermore, on the day of Pentecost St. Peter addressed this very issue when he spoke to the crowd including many of those present at the condemnation of Jesus, of salvation and reconciliation:

Therefore let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?” Peter [said] to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:36-39) 

Far from castigating or condemning them, Peter offered them the fruits of redemption. That many have tried to twist the Gospel for evil ends or incite hatred is not an excuse for mitigating the its fullness. 

Meanwhile our thanks to Mr. Gibson for his timely reminder that our salvation was not pretty and our redemption was not cheap, but is, indeed, a scandal to the powers of this world.


Mallon is a Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican