This line from the play Jesus Christ Superstar accurately captures the effect of Jesus Christ on the modern world, after all art imitates life. The furor over The Passion of the Christ is really rather remarkable, after all there have been any number of movies about Jesus and most of them hardly merit any mention at all by the mainstream press, but this one, this movie has everyone talking.
Personally, I think this is a good thing. If there is anything that the modern world needs it is to have the Passion of Christ placed before it. Modern Christians have by and large conveniently placed the Passion of Christ off to the side, as something not to focus on—and much to the detriment of the way Christians in the affluent west have subsequently reinvented what it means to be a follower of the Jesus who said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” (Mark 8:34). Take away the cross from Christianity and you are left with something that patently is no longer Christian.
It used to be that Catholics were known by their focus on The Passion of Christ. Walking around on Ash Wednesday with their foreheads smudged with an ashen cross, eating fish on Fridays, making the stations of the cross on Friday evenings—and kneeling before what usually was a larger than life crucifix that dominated the sanctuary of their churches. But after Vatican II and the subsequent good fortune of American Catholics, one saw a shift where new Churches or even renovated Churches place a resurrected Christ in the sanctuary, graphic stations of the cross were usually replaced with little wooden cross markers and outside of Lent, Catholics could eat whatever they wanted to eat.
While the Catholics were taking Christ off of the cross, other Christians were preaching a gospel of affluence, not unlike the hypnotic message of infomercials that run endlessly on early morning television. The message varied but it essentially promised that if you make a down payment in faith, Christ would bless you beyond your wildest dreams. Ironically, many of the great preachers of this Gospel were publicly humiliated and suffered their own public crucifixions. Perhaps that is one reason why evangelicals seem so ready to embrace a very graphic meditation on the Passion of Our Lord.
The price Catholics have paid for taking Christ off of the cross, (not officially, I know but popularly this has been the case and often claimed by the “experts” to be the case), is being displayed daily in the newspapers. Clergy no longer embracing the cross of Christ fell into horrible sins. Laity no longer focused on the demands of the cross have become indistinguishable from the world around them. Ask the Catholic laity about any issue and they are likely to reflect the exact same beliefs of those who claim no religious belief. Which has left many to wonder what exactly does it mean to be a “Catholic” or better what exactly does it mean to be a Catholic follower of Christ?
The answer all comes back to the Passion. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say that the west was characterized as having Christ without the Cross. We have the ability to hear the gospel preached freely, we can worship freely but without persecution we do not really hear the gospel in the same way that those who are suffering do.
The sad reality is that we are all suffering, but our ability to distract ourselves with meaningless entertainments keeps us out of touch with our suffering…until a 9/11 or the death sentence of a doctor telling us that we are terminally ill…then we see the cross and all its horror without Christ. Sadly if we have mocked Christ by being a follower without the cross we may miss the opportunity to be saved by the cross of Christ if we have spent our lives denying that it is the integral part of the Christian message.
It is interesting to see the reactions of those who worry about what a movie that graphically presents the Passion of Our Lord will do. Evangelicals are promoting it, encouraging their congregations to view the movie, invite friends and then bring them to Church so that their questions can be answered. Catholics, with the exception of the evangelical converts, for the most part are worried about the Passion renewing anti-Semitic feelings among the viewers. Jewish groups are also worried about this.
Jesus was a Jew and to me this is what I would proclaim to anyone who sees his Passion as an excuse to think poorly of the Jewish people. Such bigotry is from the devil, is evil, ignorant and is hatred ultimately of the Lord who died on the cross where the proclamation “King of the Jews” was nailed. I have written elsewhere on these pages about how Matthew’s Gospel in particular portrays Jesus as the new Moses who ratifies a new covenant and that the way to understand “his blood be upon us and our children” is only understood by going back to the ratification of the first covenant and Moses sprinkling blood upon the heads of the people as a sign of their new relationship with God. Any Christian need only open the Bible and sit with Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well and hear, “For salvation is from the Jews,” (John 4:22) or sit awhile with St. Paul in Romans 9-11.
What should we really worry about? That we have lost the true meaning of the gospel of Christ and its radical call to repent, repentance that leads to sacrificing:
“you lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor,” (Mark 10:21).
“every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery,” (Matthew 5:28)
“give to him who begs from you,” (Matthew 5:42)
“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5: 44).
We should fear that in our comfort and ease we have lost the true Christ who told the disciples on the road to Emmaus that it “was necessary” that the Son of Man suffer all of these things, because if we fail to see the true meaning of the Passion we will fail to see God’s design for us in our own lives and we will flee the cross like a possessed man—because indeed fear of the cross is a clear sign that something other than Christ has possession of us.
So there is confusion, what do we do with this man, for if we leave him alone the entire populace will believe in him and then our economy will be shot, our livelihood destroyed, our (fill in the blank)… This is always the inner conversation between the self God created and self that we feel we need to be to please others…the cross of Christ is the line in the sand…what will save us?
As St. Paul said, “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians 1:22-24)