By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. — We often see the word “passion” on the front covers of men’s and women’s magazines, publishers’ attempts to elicit interest in the physical or romantic connotation of the word. Recently, however, we have had little choice but to reflect on that word within the context of the Christian faith. “The Passion of the Christ” was released in February, yet the film continues to be a subject of interest throughout the Greek Orthodox community, in sermons, at GOYA and other parish discussion groups, as well as at public interfaith meetings.
The film’s violence, its accuracy vis-a-vis the Bible and its potentially positive impact were discussed with GreekNews by area clergy who have found additional new perspectives from which to speak through interaction with their communities. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s statement on the movie, which can be viewed in its entirety at www.goarch.org (Search: Passion of the Christ), provided a foundation for the discussion.
The archdiocese anticipates that Christians will be challenged to answer for themselves whether the violence in “The Passion of the Christ” is excessive and whether it enhances or detracts from faith.
Fr. Dennis Strouzas of the Archangel Michael Church in Roslyn suggested that the film’s violence might serve to numb some people, desensitizing them to the pain Christ experienced.
“Sometimes when presented with excessive violence, people react by shutting themselves off from it…it has a kind of numbing effect,” he said. “Perhaps if they had cut it short a bit, it wouldn’t have this effect.
“Realistically speaking, I also believe that anyone who experienced the kind of whipping Christ was portrayed to have gone through would have bled to death before they got to the Cross,” Fr. Dennis added.
He had recently participated in an interfaith discussion with clergy and laity of the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox and Jewish faiths in the Roslyn area.
Fr. John Lourdas at St. Nicholas Church in Flushing saw the film with GOYA teens and held a discussion session with the group afterwards.
“It was an interesting experience because before we went into the theater, I was with a group of typical teenagers; but five minutes into the movie, the deep emotions it elicited were obvious. It is rare that you see teenage boys cry, but here you did,” he reflected, adding that many of the youth told him the film helped them to see the church service on Holy Thursday evening in a different light.
“They said it helped them to see what Jesus did for us, his sacrifice; and they now were asking themselves what they could do in return,” Fr. John said. He added that it is easy to talk nonchalantly about the Crucifixion without seeing it; the film makes a greater impact.
Fr. John also noted an unusual sign outside the theater’s inner door, cautioning that “Passion” contained severe violence and might not be appropriate for young people. He wondered why such signs aren’t placed outside horror or other violent films such as “Friday, the 13th” and said it seemed gratuitous to have a sign there for a film about a religious subject.
Fr. James Moskovites of the Annunciation Church in New York City felt that the violence “heightened the sense of the punishment and the heaviness of the sins Christ took upon himself for us.” Fr. James’ parish was the venue of a talk and discussion about the film given by Archdiocese Chancellor Bishop Savas of Troas.
The bishop had been part of a group of religious leaders invited to view the film before its release. Speaking with GreekNews after the talk, he told of having first seen a film with an even longer scene of Christ being tortured by the Roman soldiers.
“My initial reaction was largely negative for the first viewing; I was unprepared for the extreme violence. But my reaction changed when I saw it in its final form on opening night. The flashbacks that were added helped to soften the darkness of the film,” Bishop Savas noted.
“Regardless,” he continued, “the violence, which was inexcusable for its length and severity, was beyond belief. There came a point beyond which no one could endure that kind of abuse; and you could only come to the conclusion that the Roman army, the greatest fighting force in the world, was staffed by drunken sadists. There was no discipline; it was the most bizarre army I’ve seen.”
On Biblical Accuracy
In response to those expressing concerns that too much of the movie was inaccurate, Fr. Dennis emphasized that the film “was never purported to be a documentary. It is Gibson’s exploration of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, and he never made the claim that he was following the Gospels word for word. He…expressed his own creativity – like anything that involves the creativity of the artist expressing a concept.”
Fr. John agreed, finding the movie 60-70% biblically accurate. “I thought the artistic freedom [Gibson] took can be justified and didn’t find it offensive,” he said.
Fr. James pointed out that Gibson is a “conservative Catholic who attends Latin mass, and that’s what he’ll project.” In addition, he called attention to Bishop Savas’ explanation that a lot of the material from the movie had come from the writings of a Roman Catholic visionary of medieval times.
The young adults with whom Fr. James had seen the film “knew their Scriptures,” he said, and they noted the absence of the Greek language of that period in the movie.
“In reality, Christ didn’t speak Latin to Pilate; rather, this exchange in the film reflected Gibson’s passion for his Roman Catholicism.
Bishop Savas’ concern was about the absence of the underlying and critical meaning of Christ’s crucifixion.
“In order to understand the significance of why this particular gentle person was being abused, you had to come from a Christian understanding. The point wasn’t that he died a terrible death; the point was that an innocent man died to reveal to us God’s loving nature. In other words, whatever evil you throw at Him, He will have the last word, eternal life. No matter what the world under the sway of fallen man might do to Him, you ‘can’t keep the Good Man down,’ he said.
Responding to whether “the message of Jesus is apparently reduced to His sufferings,” a concern expressed, according to the archdiocese statement, by the Metropolis of Chicago, Fr. Dennis responded in the affirmative, adding a qualification that “Roman Catholics focus on suffering” but emphasizing the importance of understanding “that there is suffering in life; but we should go beyond that and there is hope, the triumph over death by Resurrection.”
Even the Orthodox depiction of Christ on cross shows the position of His body is in supplication, not in defeat, as it is in the Western interpretation, he explained.
None of the clergy with whom we spoke were left with a totally negative reaction to “The Passion of the Christ.” Reflecting on the words of St. Paul to the Philippians as expressed in the archdiocese statement on the film: “Whether in pretense or in truth, in every way, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice (1:18),” they each saw the presentation’s benefits.
Fr. Dennis said, “The film has brought people to look at this again and this in and of itself is good. It is forcing them to come to terms [with the Crucifixion], to look at how other people perceive this event.”
For Fr. John, the response the film evoked was on a personal level. “The film helped deepen my commitment to my own personal self-sacrifices in living my Christian faith,” he said.
Fr. James saw the film’s positive impact in both the movie theater and at the discussion with Bishop Savas.
“Everyone walked out of the theater in absolute silence; kids didn’t even put their hats on their heads until they were outside. People could not talk, they were inside themselves, reflecting, and this was phenomenal.”
Then, of the discussion with the bishop, he said, “While sitting in this room, eighty to ninety people were talking about Jesus Christ on a Thursday night. If a movie is causing that, this is good,” he said.
Bishop Savas agreed. “It has had a positive effect on pop culture because it has made the discussion of the Christ event and the significance of the crucifixion a matter of public discourse; and so I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth and say it’s a bad thing.”
In closing, Fr. Dennis reflected on a final scene in the film, one that did not appear in the Gospels.
“After the Crucifixion, two of the disciples bury Judas, and one asks the other, ‘Why are we doing this?’ to which the other responds, ‘Because this is what the Master would want us to do.’
“This is Gibson’s way of interpreting the importance of forgiveness, and we have to do a better job of communicating that it wasn’t just the Jews; when we don’t forgive someone, what are we doing? We’re going against the message.”