February 12, 2004
Passion burning

Coincidentally, after I blogged my last post I went off to Bible study, and the subject of the Passion came up. One church staffer said one of her professors had been invited to a screening of the movie (I forget where she goes to school -- Fuller?) and had shown the class a bit of it. The violence of it had given her nightmares, and the professor didn't like it much either, because it built and built to a great crescendo of violence, ending in death, and then turned the audience all wound up with nowhere to go.

This led my group to wonder who would be won over by a movie that shows Christianity as all suffering and death without the resurrection afterwards. I have to wonder the same thing. Those relatively few of you who were reading my blog a year ago may remember my long Q&A session about the Atonement, where I basically kept asking, "But what does it mean that Jesus died for our sins?" I think that the extent to which people find the Passion moving, as opposed to being just another depressingly gruesome episode in world history, depends on the understanding that they already have of that question.

When it comes to Jesus, different Christians tend to focus on different things. Some, like Gibson, seem to think of his story mainly in terms of what he went through for us, the punishment that he took on our behalf, etc., so that makes the suffering the main event. Others, like Telford, focus on the resurrection, and its message of victory and hope. Still others, like Kynn, prefer not to think about either but focus on Jesus' life and teachings, with its strong ethical messages.

I imagine a lot of this depends on what you want and need out of God. In my experience, the death-focused Christians often are carrying around a load of guilt about something, and I gather that the extremity of Jesus' sufferings reminds them that he really did take all the punishment that they deserve. From what I recall, Gibson's motivations for making the movie had a lot to do with this. Like most people, I feel guilty about some things, but finding hope has definitely been a bigger issue for me; so it's not surprising that Telford's optimistic Easter-oriented theology was what drew me into church.

Still, I think I am getting some sort of feel for the meaning of the crucifixion. Lee Anne remarked on the previous post that it didn't make a difference to her faith whether Jesus' suffering was mainly physical pain or humiliation, which led me to wonder why it mattered to me. Probably because I've been fortunate enough not to have experienced much physical abuse, but I know humiliation very well. If Christ really took on the sufferings of the world, I like to know he didn't just take on the sort of heroic bloody martyrdom that's really known to only a few people, and to practically no women. I guess some sort of feel for it has crept up on me, if I care that much.

Posted by Camassia at February 12, 2004 05:12 PM | TrackBack

When I think about the crucifixion, I rarely think about the physical suffering of Christ, but it awes and humbles me to think that he experienced despair and abandonment - my God my God, why have you forsaken me? God understands what it is like to feel separated from and abandoned by God. Jurgen Moltman explains it in The Crucified God, a very formative book for me. Also, this blog has a great post (Thur. Feb. 12 entry) on something along these lines.


Posted by: Jennifer on February 12, 2004 07:41 PM

"But what does it mean that Jesus died for our sins?" I think that the extent to which people find the Passion moving...depends on the understanding that they already have of that question.

A good question and a good point. I don't think I've thought about that since I was 12. Back then, I got an answer that satisfied my pre-adolescent mind and it's just never occurred to me to revisit the question.

The answer that satisfied me at the time came from, believe it or not, a Billy Graham television revival. His explanation seemed very logical to me--at the time. Now (daggnabbit) you've got me thinking, and I have to take another look at it.

Billy's explanation was that only someone pure enough, someone without sin, could have defeated death. The power of that pure presence in such an evil place as hell was sufficient to smash open the gates and free all who followed Christ. I imagined a formerly smug devil dropping his jaw when he saw his gates crumble after Jesus walked through them, followed by thousands of the faithful streaming out on their way up to heaven.

This image now seems somewhat, uh, inadequate. Geeze, I need to re-think this.

(Sigh. I read too many blogs...)

Posted by: Dash on February 12, 2004 08:03 PM

St. Paul said he was "all things to all people", and Christ fulfils a similar role. Bishop Fulton Sheen once said that he thought the purpose of the Agony in the Garden was that in suffering great mental pain Jesus could identify (or, actually vice-versa) with those who suffer mental illness.

Posted by: tso on February 13, 2004 12:29 PM

Dear Camassia,

Thank you for your very thoughtful posts. You might be interested in an article by Robert Daly, SJ about sacrifice in the 5.12.03 America. Fr Daly contends that a great deal of thought about sacrifice is simply backwards because it begins "with the religions of the world, in which the destruction of a gift or victim is the essential characteristic of sacrifice, and then tries to verify this in the sacrifice of Christ and in Christian sacrifice." The idea of Christ's sacrifice as the pagan sacrifice par excellence, with its focus on the destruction of a victim, leads one to see Christ's reconciliation as the divinely ordained destruction (or self-immolation)of the Son for the appeasement of the offended Father. That is, after all, how pagan sacrifice works.

Daly suggests that we instead begin with an explicitly Trinitarian framework. There are three moments.

- "The first moment is the self-offering of the Father. We cannot remind ourselves too often that nothing begins with us; everything begins with God (see 1 Jn 4:10: 'not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son'). But what begins with God is the Father's self-offering initiative in the gift of the Son. It is the Father giving himself; it is not the Father 'giving up what he loves'; and above all, it is not something that the Father does to the Son."

- "The second moment is the self-offering 'response' of the Son in his humanity and in the power of the Holy Spirit. I write 'response' in quotation marks to call attention to the way language can veil as well as unveil. For 'response' suggests at least a slight sense of opposition or challenge. But there is nothing of that in the totally self-communicating, mutual relationship of Father and Son."

- "The third moment is the self-offering of the faithful. Only with this moment does Christian sacrifice (as distinct from the sacrifice of Christ, from which, of course, it cannot be separated) become real. Here again, words veil as well as unveil. For strictly speaking, this is not something that the faithful do. Rather it is what happens when, in the power of the same Spirit that was in Jesus, we are taken up into the totally free, totally loving, totally self-communicating, mutual love of Father, Son and Spirit."

Daly suggests that with such a view, we "will see that it is the self-giving love and not the suffering that accompanies it that is the essence of the sacrifice of Christ."

Thank you.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on February 13, 2004 02:56 PM

I saw "The Passion" a couple of weeks ago. It is a bloody, violent snippet of the last few hours of Jesus' life. But who could believe in a god who would let this happen to his son?

Posted by: Bill Reeves on February 22, 2004 04:55 PM

Yeah, well, that question pretty well sums up why I hate the substitional atonement theory (as does Neil Dhingra's quote). It makes God seem so damn bloodthristy. I think the theory of the crucifixion I'm drifting toward is the (Eastern Orthodox?) one that "God became man so that man could become divine." In other words, it wasn't so much about God sending his hapless son to the wolves as God incarnating himself and taking on human suffering so as to completely close the gap between us. That requires a lot more unpacking, but like I said, I went into this at greater length a year ago, and I'll pass on reopening it all now...

Posted by: Camassia on February 23, 2004 05:38 PM
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