A Necessary Horror

Jim Caviezel in 'The Passion of the Christ.'

Twenty years ago, in the inky darkness of my local theater, I watched a story I had read or heard again and again. In truth, one might reason that it was foolish to pay good money to see a film whose plot and outcome is almost mind-numbingly familiar. 

But I had never seen it. And it was brutal.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Mel Gibson’s earth-shaking film The Passion of the Christ. To be sure, this movie is earth-shaking in the sense that a serious film (in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin with subtitles, no less) about the torture and death of Jesus Christ could even appear in theaters across the country. The conventional wisdom in modern times is that box-office Christianity simply does not pay. But The Passion of the Christ would defy the odds and become an international theater smash, raising $612 million after a mere $30 million was spent in production.

But The Passion of the Christ did more than upend conventional market expectations. The world was rocked by the film’s very nature. For 127 grueling minutes, we are witness to the peak drama of the Christian narrative—the tumultuous last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life. From Christ’s Agony in the Garden to his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, from his scourging at the pillar to his crowning with thorns, from his relentless trudge down the Way of the Cross to his nailed, sword-pierced, last gasp on the cross. The bludgeoning and whipping, the pounding and stabbing, the mocking and spitting afflict this defiant-in-submission God-man amid the shame-filled silence of his petrified disciples and the heaving sobs of his despairing followers. 

The endured violence was bad enough, but the film’s personification of evil lent the Devil his day. The hooded, deathly pale Lucifer in the garden chillingly whispered to the agonizing Christ what I know I would have been whispering to myself: “No man can carry this weight alone. It is far too heavy. Saving men’s souls is too costly. No one ever … ” Then the Devil breaks, as if listening to Jesus’ inner rebuttal, and then continues in terse response, “No, not ever.” Even the scene where a smiling centurion is whipping Jesus, we are further jarred as the black-hooded Lucifer walks silently amid Roman soldiers while cradling a baby in its arms. At the far limits of torture, Christ’s gaze fixes momentarily on the Devil whose infant turns to reveal itself as a sneering grotesque. Some have conjectured this monstrosity symbolized the Devil’s prized victory against God’s creation—dignified man—which was the loss of innocence, original sin. 

It was brutal. A horror. But it was a necessary horror. 

In the Christian faith, we believe in a perfect God. A God of both perfect mercy and perfect justice. We also believe that we are dignified children of God imbued with glorious value quite simply for being. But to understand our Christian story is to understand that, though we are dignified, we are fallen, and in need of redemption. The cost of our fall, the price of our sin, is too great for any one of us to pay. And so, to pay an insurmountable debt (justice), we must rely on inextinguishable grace (mercy). In the Passion and Crucifixion of the fully human, fully divine Jesus Christ, the debt of the world’s sins is paid and the debtors are set free (that is, if we are willing to accept the payment on our behalf). This is the Christian narrative of enormity: enormous dignity, enormous fall, enormous redemption. 

But did The Passion of the Christ have to be so awful bloody and so bloody awful? In a word, yes.

To borrow from Bishop Robert Barron, sometimes we need to refuse the bland domestication of our faith and grapple—triggered to the full—with the profound gravity of what actually happened. And in so doing, we will reckon not only with the grief of the Passion, but also the joy of the Resurrection. We will weep over the gravity of our sins, but we will exult in the seismic quality of God’s grace. 

How does anyone grapple with the enormity of man’s sin? How does anyone wrestle with the infinite, lacerating knives of all historical and future sin descending upon and absorbed by one solitary man? In short, by reckoning with the price that Christ was willing to pay for it.

In writing to her friend Louise Abbott, Flannery O’Connor confessed, “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” St. Thomas More, martyred by King Henry VIII, quipped, “We cannot get to heaven on a featherbed.” Even Aeschylus, the ancient Greek (and non-Christian) tragedian, understood the importance of grappling with raw suffering. In the early lines of his play Agamemnon, Aeschylus acknowledges that “He who [loves] must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

But notwithstanding the immense suffering in Christ’s Passion, the Christian doesn’t stay there—we move to the other side of it. French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos unfolds searing stories of relentless pain and yet they are always (at times with a cocked-eye) shot through with grace. “The first realization of misery is fierce indeed,” Bernanos writes in The Diary of a Country Priest. It is a thing most people know so little about, or forget it because it would frighten them too much. … And yet I feel that such distress, distress that has forgotten even its name, that has ceased to reason or to hope, that lays its tortured head at random, will awaken one day on the shoulder of Jesus Christ.” In the conclusion of this novel (spoiler alert), after page upon page of profound suffering, the priest succumbs, but not without uttering the indisputable truth through it all: “Grace is everywhere.” 

The Passion of the Christ attempts to tell the “untellable tale” of Christ’s gift to humanity. It asks us to imagine Christ’s burden, but also to imagine his grace. 

Twenty years after first seeing the film, my feelings remain unchanged: It was brutal. A horror—a necessary horror. It had to be.

But now, grace is everywhere.

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