It is fitting that The Passion of the Christ first opened in the United States on an Ash Wednesday and played in theaters throughout Lent. (See our review of the movie here.) On Ash Wednesday, Christians honor the starkness of human finitude and mortality. We confront our own death in a culture that tries to deny this reality in every way possible. Mel Gibson's movie sees the suffering, humiliation, and death of Jesus on the cross as the ultimate darkness. But instead of moving away from it, the man from Nazareth moves through the agony, the loneliness, and the pain with courage and clarity. He is the universal victim in a world of far too many victims.
Lent is traditionally a time to reflect upon the meaning of Jesus' suffering and death, to rededicate ourselves to spiritual practices, and to turn anew toward God. One common practice is to meditate upon the Stations of the Cross, the steps in Jesus' journey from Gethsemane to Golgatha. In the following meditation, based on some of the traditional stations, we recall scenes from the film and encourage you to ponder the manifold ways in which the Crucified One is in our midst and still suffering and dying. We ask you to empathize with those around him, from his frightened disciples who abandoned him, to the Roman soldiers who tortured him, to the loyal and devoted women who watched him suffer and die.
We ask you to recognize parallel situations in our own times. We will use a phrase by Father Edward Hays at the end of each meditation: "Let us take up our cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world." Consider it as a bell calling you to focus your attention and bring your heart to a place of love, peace, and compassion.
We encourage you to use this meditation with multifaith groups meeting to discuss the movie. We hope especially that evangelical and progressive Christians will go through this experience together. While we may disagree on many theological points suggested by The Passion of the Christ, we share a reverence for Jesus and the way of the cross that he undertook with such love and selflessness. As the spiritual writer Henri J. M. Nouwen writes in Finding My Way Home: "It is in the passion that the fullness of Jesus' love shines through. It is a waiting love, a love that does not seek control."
JESUS PRAYS IN THE GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE.
The film begins in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is praying alone. Sweat rolls off his face. Satan appears to tempt him to give up, saying that no one man can bear alone what he is taking on. Jesus discovers that his disciples, whom he asked to watch with him, have fallen asleep. We, too, are tempted to run away from the challenges we have been given by God. It takes courage to stay the course when we know it will involve blood, sweat, and tears; when we have no support system and know we have to go it alone. May we be inspired by the patience and the perseverance of Jesus who chose the dark night of the soul. "Let us take up our cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
JESUS IS BETRAYED BY JUDAS.
Over the centuries, many commentators on the life of Christ have pointed out that the greatest tragedy of all is the suicide of Judas. How many times have we betrayed someone because they did not live up to our high expectations or share our dreams for the future? Have we, like the children following Judas, ever taunted someone in confusion or despair? O Creator of the Universe, we feel nothing but the deepest sorrow for those who have taken their own lives out of feelings of deep self-loathing or failure. May we be the ones to be present in love, even as Jesus was, to those who are perched on the edge of peril. "Let us take up the cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
JESUS IS DENIED BY PETER.
The disciples, like us, are flawed individuals who one minute are reveling in their relationship with Jesus and the next are giving in to fear and anxiety over what others might think. It is difficult to stand by one who is judged to be an outlaw, who is rejected by the masses and whose path is one of suffering. So we chicken out on those who tell the truth lest we invite the disapproval of others. Forgive us for missing the mark so often by giving in to cowardice. "Let us take up the cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
JESUS IS JUDGED, SCOURGED, AND CROWNED WITH THORNS.
Jesus is arrested in the Garden and beaten as he is taken to be judged by the Jewish authorities in an illegal, nighttime meeting with not all council members present. We think of all the innocents dragged from their homes and friends at night and imprisoned without a proper trial. The scenes of Jesus being scourged draw out our feelings of compassion for all victims of torture and abuse around the world in prisons, interrogation centers, and dark alleys. Yet we also recognize that we ourselves are often fascinated by violence and have known some of the blood lust exhibited by the soldiers and the crowds yelling for more. May God have mercy on us for ignoring the plight of the victims of violence and for denying the existence within ourselves of the tendency to inflict pain out of anger, frustration, or just to go along with the crowd. "Let us take up the cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
JESUS STANDS BEFORE PILATE.
We have all played the role of Pontius Pilate at one time or another. We choose what is expedient and then wash our hands of any guilt. In Pilate's act, contrasted in the film with Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples, we see the nefarious deeds of all those who try to hide behind the plea "I was only doing my duty." It is hard to calculate the injustices done to the human spirit throughout history by people playing institutional games and protecting themselves in the process. May the Master of the Universe tutor us in the art of seeking the truth and upholding the dignity of all human beings. "Let us take up the cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
JESUS CARRIES HIS CROSS.
Our hearts go out to all those who carry a cross in our times: the poor, the homeless, displaced refugees, addicts of all types, the mentally ill, the victims of child abuse and rape, and all others who stumble and fall repeatedly. May the Holy One lighten their burden with the knowledge that they are not alone, that others care and hope for their recovery. "Let us take up the cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
MARY COMES TO ASSIST JESUS WHEN HE HAS FALLEN.
In one of the most heart affecting scenes, Mary runs to help Jesus as he kneels on the ground, not knowing whether he has the strength to go on. In that moment, Mary stands in for the Mothers in the Plaza and all others who have lost sons and daughters to repressive regimes, civil war, and injustices of all kinds. She stands in for all mothers who have seen their children die before them. O Holy Mother God, may we express our love and care for all who suffer in this world. May our hearts nurture love not only for our own but also for strangers who are in harm's way. "Let us take up the cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
JESUS IS HELPED BY SIMON OF CYRENE.
Thank God for the Simons of the world who reach out to help those who are suffering and can barely go on. Thank God for the Simons who stand up to the authorities and say "Enough! Stop!" All the world's religions celebrate gestures of compassion and kindness that arise spontaneously out of dire circumstances. May Simon's spirit animate us to serve in homeless shelters, visit the sick, reach out to those in prison, and send our loving prayers to all who feel abandoned and helpless. "Let us take up the cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
JESUS IS CRUCIFIED.
The fate of Jesus is sealed when he reaches Golgotha. Crucifixion was a form of barbaric execution reserved for enemies of the state. Its victims suffered in a most excruciating way. Today, the United States and only a few other nations in the world practice capital punishment. No matter what words are used to make it sound like justice, this is nothing more than another form of barbaric execution, vengeance sanctioned by the state. May all those who witness the agonizing pain and horrific suffering of Jesus on the cross have their hearts softened towards those on death row who await execution. May God have mercy on the souls of all who seek revenge. "Let us take up the cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
JESUS PROMISES TO SHARE HIS REIGN WITH THE GOOD THIEF.
This surprise happening takes place in the midst of terrible pain. Jesus models for us the love of God in his promise to share his reign with the good thief. This person, like the prodigal son in the famous parable, is open to grace, and he receives it in the last moments of his life. To the end, Jesus is a lover giving to another. No person can ever be written off as not redeemable. With some of his last breaths, Jesus forgives those who have persecuted him. May we, too, be forgiven, and may we, too, be forgiving. "Let us take up our cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
JESUS IS ON THE CROSS WITH HIS MOTHER AND DISCIPLES BELOW.
Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and John the Beloved Disciple follow Jesus on the way of sorrows. Despite the danger facing them, they stand under the cross at the place of execution. Jesus with a look demonstrates his nurturing love for his mother and puts her under John's care. May we demonstrate devotion to those who stand by us in all circumstances. "Let us take up our cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."
JESUS DIES ON THE CROSS.
In his book Cry of Jesus, Cry of the Oppressed, Jose Comblin writes:
Then Jesus cries out.
It is a cry of freedom. A cry of hope. A cry of handing over.
It is a cry of giving back.
Giving back all his work, his dreams, his love, life, breath, spirit.
It is a cry of pain and agony. It is a cry of resistance to evil.
It is a cry against violence and death . . .
That cry tears loose anything that holds back God or the kingdom of God from coming among us . . .
It is a cry layered and fraught with meaning.
It is a cry to God for justice, for security, for defense and for faithfulness that will not be undone by others' hate and persecution.
It is a cry of anguish for all that was lost, for all life that was torn to shreds,
all that life denied to others, all that hope cast away..
It is the Cry of Mercy being poured out
and Mercy being caught up into the arms of the Father.
It is the Cry of God when we don't see Him."
"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" goes the African-American spiritual. "Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble." After walking with Jesus on the grueling way of sorrows, this is how we feel exhausted, depleted, shaken, and stunned. So the image used to signal his triumph over death and destruction is doubly sweet. All the vehemence of power, cruelty, and catastrophic violence do not have the last word. We see a stone being rolled away and find ourselves inside a tomb. And there is Jesus; he gets up and walks slowly away from death's bondage. As we walk out of the theatre into our own culture of violence to practice forgiveness, peace, compassion, and empathy, a prayer is still on our lips and in our heart: "Let us take up the cross and follow you, Lord Jesus, for by so doing we share in the liberation of the world."