*Dr.Ivo da Conceição Souza
Can we speak of the “agony” of God? When Man is in turmoil, when life is threatened, when tsunami has played havoc on the lives of tens of thousands, when society has lost basic values of respect for life and for human dignity, can we speak of the “agony of God”? If the glory of God is the living Man, and it is a common place to say that the situation of Man is at stake, cannot we speak of the “agony of God”? These questions crop up to our mind when we have the daily papers in one hand and the Gospel in the other, thus reading the daily news in the light of the Gospel values and the Gospel shedding light on the daily chores of life, as Karl Barth has recommended.
In this essay, we shall reflect on these existential issues in the light of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. The Paschal Mystery is the kernel of Christian religion, it is the mystique of our human-Christian existence. In short, it is our participation in the “agony of the triumphant God”.
Historical Context of the Death of Jesus:
Whenever we speak of the revolution brought up by Christianity into the world, we praise the Cross. The Cross brought renewal to the world. It was the sealing of the “movement of Jesus” in Judea. It is epitome of Love. The starting-point for Theology is its historical context. One cannot interpret theologically Jesus’ death without explaining it historically. Crucifixion was a death inflicted on a slave. The crucifixion of Jesus was one of the most unequivocally political events recorded in the New Testament. Early theological interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion as a death “for our sins” has overlooked the horrendous, non-religious feature of the Gospel. Cross was an instrument of imperial terror. In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was supreme penalty, instrument of terror and horror. The Roman Empire could not succeed without terror and violence. Pax Romana was rooted on power—peace secured through coercion and terror: terror of gladiatorial games, terror of human sacrifices. Jesus, on the contrary, has rooted his message on peace and love. This was certainly a threat for the Roman Empire.
Paul’s Theology of the Cross:
To understand the “word of the cross” is to understand the quintessence of Christianity. In the First Letter to the Corinthians Paul stated: “When I first came to you, brothers and sisters, I decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). What was the meaning of the Cross of Jesus Christ for Paul? His conversion was the result of his encounter with Jesus as the Crucified. It generated a revolution in his conviction and action. It energized his entire apostolic endeavour. The Apostle has to partake in the suffering of Jesus, to order life in love (that is, crucified love), to pull everything into the tremendous gravitational field of the Cross (cf.Col 1:24). His proclamation was the “public portrayal of Jesus Christ Crucified” (Gal 3:1). In this context, he could boast himself in the Lord: “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (Ga 6:14). Christian life is co-crucifixion with Christ (cf.Rm 6:1-5). Baptism means to die to sin and live for God (cf.Rm 6:3-11). The common sacred meal, the “Lord’s supper” was a solemn, public proclamation of the Lord’s death (1 Cor 11:26). Christ died for us, for our sins, for our liberation (Rm 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11). We have to recognize the centrality of the Cross of Christ for Paul’s theologizing.
The Passion of the Christ and Mel Gibson:
Our reflection comes in the context of the present crisis of the society: wars, riots, rapes, suicides, homicides… The film of Mel Gibson, which has made a deep impression on our minds, can help us to understand the mystery of the Cross. It is the mystery of the Resurrection, the mystery of the glory of God. We still remember the film The Passion of the Christ, where Mel Gibson provides us with the view of the last twelve hours of Jesus of Nazareth. The film opens with the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus resists Satan’s temptations, is arrested and taken back to within the city walls of Jerusalem. The leaders of the Pharisees confront him with accusations of blasphemy, and his trial results in a condemnation to death. Jesus is handed over to the Roman soldiers and scourged.
Pilate washes his hands of the entire dilemma, ordering his men to do as the crowd wishes. Jesus is presented with the cross and is ordered to carry it through the streets of Jerusalem all the way up to Golgotha. On Golgotha, Jesus is nailed to the cross and undergoes his last temptation—the fear that he has been abandoned: “Eli, Eli, lama sabakhthani?” (“My God, my God, why did you forsake me?”, Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34; cf.Ps 22:1). He overcomes his fear, looks at Mary, his holy Mother, and makes the pronouncement, which only she can fully understand: “It is accomplished” (Jn 19:30; cf.Mt 27:50; Mk 15:37; Lk 23:46). Jesus then dies: “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit” (Lk 23:46; cf.Ps 31:5). At the moment of his death, the veil of the temple is torn, a new worship is inaugurated, nature itself overturns (cf.Mk 15:38; Mt 27:51; Lk 23:45; see also Jn 19:34; 12:32; 4:24; 2:19).
The film, The Passion of the Christ, is a profession of faith on the part of Mel Gibson. In the opening sequence in Gethsemane we find the theological themes that inform the rest of the film. Jesus bears the weight of the sin of the world–this is what Mel Gibson depicts in his film, which begins with the scriptural text: “And he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors“ (Is 53:12). Jesus tells his disciples that “there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for friends” (cf. 1 Jn 3:16).
Christ died for the sins of all human beings, hence all human beings participate in nailing Christ to the cross. His thesis is that the crowd, stirred up by the Jewish chief priests, demand that Pontius Pilate release to them the murderer, Bar-abbas, and crucify Jesus of Nazareth. Theologically, its grounds are that Christ died for the sins of all human beings, hence all human beings participate in nailing Christ to the cross. As a Christian, Mel films his own hand grasping a thick iron nail just before it is pounded into Jesus’ (Jim Caviezel) flesh. (Perhaps more to the point, Gibson publicizes the fact.). He gets inspiration from Middle Ages spirituality. It was centred on the Cross as central redemptive act—Christians were called to re-enact Christi’s sacrifice in similarly dramatic ways. There was imaginative meditation on how Christ was flogged, mocked, and crucified, often adding moments of mental and emotional torture and degradation not found within the Gospels. He took scenes from the Catholic visionaries, Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerick (1774-1824)–who was beatified by John Paul II on October 3, 2004–, Venerable Mary of Agreda (1602-1665), St.Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373)–(or Birgitta in the Nordic form of spelling)–, and Blessed Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), emphasizing on violence and compassionate identification with its victim, thus, trying to fill up “lacunae” found in the Gospel narratives, which are elliptical texts. The film seems real or literal, not because it follows the letter of the Bible, but because of the extremity of the violence it depicts. (Stories of the injuries Jim Caviezel sustained during filming reinforce the illusion that the violence depicted within the movie is real.)
The film is theologically sound—Jesus, in his person, was both human and divine in nature. As a human being, Jesus is presented as working in Nazareth as a craftsman, experiencing deep human pain in his agony, being scourged, falling on the way to Calvary, being nailed and crucified. He reveals his dignity, composure and sovereignty at his trial, before Pontius Pilate and Herod, on the Cross. The film also highlights his deep human anguish, sense of abandonment in his agony, on the Cross, as he surrenders to the Father. The Resurection is the climax of the Passion. But it is too brief—Jesus sitting in the tomb as a prelude to his risen life. The film misses the depth of the mystery of the suffering and death of Jesus.
Sin disfigures and maims us. It damages our relationships and destroys our human dignity and growth. As St.Thomas puts it, “in the opinion of men (Jesus) was considered a sinner and paid the price of redemption: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (cf.2 Cor 5:21). The purpose of the violence in the film is to make the spectator realize what sin is and what Jesus has been for us. The Negro Spiritual reminds us: “Were we there when Jesus was crucified?” The dialogue was in Aramaic and Latin, but it had subtitles in English.
Conclusion: Jesus of Nazareth was a “revolutionary” in the true sense of the word, as can be seen from his manifesto (cf.Lk 4:16-21). Jesus came to the world to proclaim the “good news” to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, to announce the “acceptable year” of the Lord. He was to usher in a new era of renewal, a new social order, God’s Kingdom/Reign/Lordship on earth. Jesus sharply criticized the rich oppressors and political rulers of his day. But he never supported the use of physical violence against his fellowmen. Rather, Jesus consistently rejected the urges of some of his followers to employ such methods of violence (Jn 18:10-11). Jesus was familiar with the violent means and measures employed by the political rulers to accomplish their purposes (Cf.Lk 13:1; Mk 13:31). One of his twelve apostles, Simon, had a Zealot background. Jesus was, therefore, familiar with the Zealots’ programme to overthrow Roman rule by force of weapons, arms and daggers. But his stance was one of non-resistance and non-violence. He presents his injunction, “To him who strikes you on the right cheek, offer the other also” (Mt 5:39), within the context of love for one’s enemies. It requires a high dosage of self-transcendance and loving forgiveness. His agony is triumphant, it is victorious struggle against sin and evil, its individual and societal consequences…