Fr. Ron Rolheiser ponders how we, as followers of Jesus, might "sweat blood" in our daily lives:
One of the great lessons of Gethsemane is precisely that. To keep any commitment, we have to sweat blood because, like Jesus in the Garden, there comes a time when we have to enter into a great loneliness, the loneliness of moral integrity, the loneliness of fidelity, and the loneliness of responding to a higher will and a higher eros. And that, as Jesus showed, requires a painful emotional asceticism, a certain romantic fasting, which can almost crush the spirit.
To make commitments and to remain faithful to each other requires being willing to experience what Jesus experienced in the garden, namely, emotional crucifixion. Scripture says he gave his will over to his Father, but it was a very particular part of his will that was undergoing struggle and resistance in Gethsemane, namely, that part which stewards freedom, opportunity, romance, pleasure, and embrace. The lover in him had to let go of some things. The same is true for each of us.
YOUR BROTHER:Today’s readings, read in order, create an interesting dynamic. In the first reading, we hear a promise of mercy to those who repent: “If the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” Today’s Psalm, the De Profundis, makes supplication to the Lord: “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, who, Lord would survive. But with you is found forgiveness and for this we revere you.”
So by the end of these readings, we’re all set to hightail it back to the temple, to bring sacrifices and ask forgiveness. We’re ready to confess and make our peace with God.
But Jesus catches us on the way and tosses us a curve ball: What about the people you’ve hurt? Before you head off to the temple to reconcile yourself with God, maybe you should reconcile yourself with them.
Sometimes we think of the Sacrament of Penance/Confession/Reconciliation (pick your poison) as a rite in which the priest, acting as God’s representative, offers us God’s forgiveness. There’s truth in that, but it misses something. In the sacrament’s current form, the priest is playing a role that in the early days of the sacrament was reserved to the local Bishop. The Bishop was in the position of judging whether the person could be readmitted to the Christian community that they had harmed through their sin. So when we confess our sins to a priest, we are confessing them to someone who represents our Christian community.
What this underscores is that, as Christians, our lives are no longer our own. They belong not only to God, but to one another. We’re accountable to one another. Our lives—and our sins—cannot be truly private, something only between “me and God.”
There is, of course, a danger in this, the kind of danger illustrated in the story of those who wished to stone the woman caught in adultery. But in our current age, I wonder if we are leaning too far in the opposite direction, toward an excessively privatized faith that we take entirely on our own terms and that never requires any hard choices. Stanley Hauerwas once quoted a Rabbi he knew as saying “any religion that doesn’t tell you what to do with your genitals and your pots and pans can’t be interesting.” It’s a good thought to meditate on this Lent.
THE PRAYER OF ESTHER: In the first reading today, we hear the prayer of Esther. Esther, a Jew, has been taken as Queen by King Ahasuerus of Persia. His vizier, Haman, hated the Jews because the king’s servant Mordecai (Esther’s adoptive father) refuses to do him homage for religious reasons. Haman convinces the King to sign a decree giving Haman the authority to have all the Jews in Persia destroyed on a single day of his choosing. The only person who can avert the slaughter is Esther, but the only way she can do so is to approach the King. But to approach the King unbidden carries the sentence of death.
Esther prays that God will give her the strength to do what is right. She is Queen. She might continue to conceal who she is and save herself, although Mordecai argues “think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.” In the end, Esther knows that she must go to the king, even if it means her death: “Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
If there was a sin that sometimes seemed to characterize the past century, it was the sin that Esther was tempted to commit. It was not only that so many were abused, oppressed, tortured and killed. It was that these things were known, and those who might have been able to stop them failed to speak or act. They feared to go unto the King. We still do.
And why do we fear to go unto the King? Sometimes it’s because we really do fear for our lives. But all too often, it’s because we fear for our comfort, our security, our position, the esteem in which we are held by others. We’ve placed our trust in these things. To put them at risk can feel like we are risking a kind of death.
As we have seen this week, the Cross means many things to Christians. But one of the things it means is that the worst thing that can happen has already happened. One man in the history of humankind has placed himself completely, totally and unreservedly in God’s hands and suffered all the torments of the Adversary because of His choice. He made it through, though not unchanged. We are called to follow. Let us pray--like Esther--for the strength to do so.
I initially had a strongly negative reaction to the movie. I felt traumatized and angry and much of my anger was directed at Gibson. I went home and stayed up late writing furiously in my notebook until my fingers cramped. I tossed and turned, unable to get the images out of my head. Finally I drifted off to sleep.
I woke up around 3:00am, the images of the movie still vivid in my mind. But my anger had abated, and somehow I was better able to relate the Jesus in the film to the Jesus that I knew and loved. I found myself praying “My God, what have we done to you.” There was a song I learned at last weekend’s retreat that had been playing in my mind. The chorus begins “Crucified…” But as the song entered my head again, I found it dying in my throat. After watching the film, it seemed almost blasphemous to sing of the crucifixion in the cadences of contemporary Christian music. I walked around the house and looked at the various crosses that we have. It was hard to look at them now.
It occurs to me that a work of art that can restore our horror at the sight of the crucified Christ cannot be entirely without merit. But what does it say about us that it took this much? How desensitized to violence have we become? What will it take next time?
So I want to say up front that it’s very hard for me to get critical distance on this film. My emotions are still too raw. Maybe that’s a bad time to be writing, but I need to get this out of my head.
After the film, we had a few minutes for folks to share their impressions. One woman said the film showed her how much Jesus had loved us. But that’s one thing that I, personally, did not get from the film. For me it was hard to see that love under all the blood. I didn’t see a man undergoing torture because he loved me. I saw a man who had a supernatural ability to absorb physical punishment. I never really understood why he was doing it, or why others wanted to inflict such punishment upon him.
As I watched this, the thought kept going through my mind: “I’m watching a Mel Gibson movie.” I’ve watched a lot of them: Mad Max, Road Warrior, Braveheart, the Lethal Weapon series. The unifying theme in Gibson’s work is the capacity of the heroic man to absorb physical punishment. My wife, who does not have my familiarity with Gibson’s work, said she kept thinking of John McCain, the hero of Bruce Willis’ Die Hard, who also ends up a bloody mess by the end of the movie. “It was terrible,” my wife said, “but I couldn’t help it. That’s what I kept thinking of.”
I was just sickened by the flogging scene. It was the stuff of nightmares. It’s one thing not to turn away from the reality of Jesus’ suffering. It’s another for the camera to appear to take sadistic and voyeuristic delight in that suffering. Is our understanding of the moral and physical evil of human torture really enhanced by a graphic depiction of it? Would a film depicting a concentration camp victim choking to death on gas and then having his skin removed by Nazi doctors really tell us a truth about the Holocaust that we don’t already know?
But what is the difference between this movie and the Stations of the Cross, the Meditations on the Sorrowful Mysteries, or even the readings of the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday? It’s a good question. One difference is that the use of visual imagery in those devotions is generally quite minimal, and the visual imagery that is used tends to be static. The person who enters into these devotions needs to supply much of the visual imagery himself. The structure of these devotions also allows more time for silence, contemplation and prayer. There is no such time in Gibson’s movie, which moves along relentlessly to a pounding soundtrack.
The person in the film who I warmed to was Mary. If Gibson has done much that can be criticized, his decision to rescue Mary from her depiction in countless plasticine statuettes is worthy of praise. The only time I really broke down in tears was the moment where Mary ran to Jesus’ side and said “I’m here!” This is a Mary who walks the way of discipleship when the rest of them (save John) have fled. I found myself unable to weep for Caviezel’s Jesus, but I found myself weeping for Mary and—like John—wanting to stand with her and embrace her. Simon of Cyrene was also wonderfully rendered.
I have heard a couple of on-line commentators suggest that this was the best Jesus movie ever made. I would have to respond “best at what?” At depicting the historical events behind the Gospel accounts? There’s too much material here that is clearly non-historical for me to agree with that judgment. At depicting the Gospels themselves? Gibson certainly has the broad outline right, but the way he mixes, matches and modifies scenes from different Gospel accounts sometimes loses the theological point the Gospel writer is trying to make.
An example is the scene from Luke where the “good thief” asks him “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It’s the only time in the Gospel that someone (other than a demon) addresses Jesus by name without an honorific attached (“Master,” “Son of David,” etc.). It’s clearly intentional, and meant to underline Jesus’ solidarity with humankind in his suffering. But for some reason Gibson has the thief address Jesus as “Lord,” which sort of spoils Luke’s point. Similarly, having Jesus shoulder pulled out of his socket would seem to undermine the Johannine insistence that “not a bone of him shall be broken,” (Jn 19:36) an effort to portray Jesus as the Passover lamb being offered for sacrifice.
With regard to the question of anti-Semitism, I don’t think Gibson is an anti-Semite nor did he intend to make an anti-Semitic movie. But to our shame, anti-Semitic imagery has woven its way into the collective unconscious of Christians in ways that we are often not even aware of. To anyone who knows that Saint Augustine once wrote that “the true image of the Hebrew is Judas Iscariot,” the scene where Judas scrambles to pick up the scattered silver pieces is positively painful. I think some hard questions can be asked about why the conflicting motivations of Pilate are depicted in such detail, while the Sanhedrin’s reasons for wanting Jesus dead are not probed in similar depth.
Finally, of course, there is the question of theology. The underlying theology of the movie is the traditional one of Jesus as atoning sacrifice, with which I have no problem as long as it is understood that this is not the only way a Christian must understand the paschal mystery. But there are times when the movie seems to lean toward the dangerous position that it is what was suffered rather than who suffered that is at issue. I also have to question the underlying theology of having the crow pluck out the eye of the “bad thief.” That scene just appalled me.
Would I recommend that people see the movie? I don’t know. I thought it was important for me to see it. Part of it depends how well you can emotionally handle depictions of graphic violence. To some extent the film is a Rorschach blot, and you can see in it what you bring to it. In time, perhaps, Gibson’s graphic imagery may meld into my own and will eventually be able to see in Gibson’s Jesus the face of the Jesus whom I love. I hope that happens, because right now these images are very painful and there is no way that I can rid myself of them. I need those images to undergo their own kind of paschal mystery if I am going to be able to live with them.
There may be some truth to that, but I wonder if whether the opposite is not equally true. One of the things you realize when you go on retreat is just how tired you are. It’s interesting how once you are able to separate yourself from the daily cycle of production and consumption and find a place of silence and contemplation, how naturally the heart inclines to God, like a balloon suddenly released from a child’s grasp. We sometimes view the spiritual life as a heroic climb up a mountain, but perhaps we should see it as God trying as best He can to pull us up the mountain while we desperately cling with our fingernails to the soil at the mountain’s base.
And why do we do that? Fear, for one thing. What am I if I am not my job, my profession, my home, my car, my clothes, my parish and volunteer commitments, or even my role as husband and father? If I were to lose all those, what would I be? Like Adam, I ask the question: what am I if I do not possess the thing that will allow me to control my own destiny? Like him, I grasp at the fruit, fearing that without it I will be lost. Lacking in trust, unsure whether I am really loved, I try to be my own savior, my own Lord.
And how exhausting that is! And how tired it makes me! And how unnatural it ultimately seems! We sense, somehow, that this is not how it was meant to be. We shouldn’t be this tired. Maybe we’re pulling against a force that is ultimately irresistible, Something that doesn’t want to let us go. Are we willing to trust in that force, to surrender to it, to be embraced and transformed by it?
Easier said than done, of course. For most of us, surrender is a game of inches, with slow progress and often dramatic reversals. We make commitments to prayer, and then abandon them. We strive for simplicity, and then fear that our lives are becoming drab and plain. We struggle for justice, and accept compromise.
But if we understand what we are trying to do as essentially an act of surrender, then we will understand it rightly. We are not building the Kingdom, we are accepting that it has been built—and not by us. We are the ragged remains of a defeated army, finally coming in from the jungle to surrender our arms. We stand stunned and uncomprehending as we are welcomed home with love by the very power against whom we fought. Why did it take us so long to come home?