08 April 2009

Hammering out "The Passion"

Last Sunday, I was feeling particularly motived to get into the spirit and essence of Easter, so my wife and I watched Mel Gibson's "The Passion." The last time I'd seen it was in college five years prior, when it was in theaters. I don't remember being particularly impressed. In fact, I wrote a column about how much more it made me question the Hollywood system as opposed to contemplating my faith. My biggest complaint at the time was that the flogging scene was way too over the top (perhaps a deliberate measure by Mel Gibson, who is perhaps not known as a particularly subtle director).
Sunday night, I was impressed at how detailed the movie was. I hadn't noticed that the first time. It was like watching deleted scenes from "Braveheart" that had Jesus in them. The sounds (believe me, I've seen "Braveheart" enough to notice this) seemed particularly similar. In the end, I was impressed at the merits of the movie, but still not as moved as countless thousands others had been when they first saw the movie. If anything, I found more entertainment in the story about the guy who dressed up like the Devil and went to screenings of "The Passion," interrupting the movie by saying things like "I never said that!" I'm not sure if this happened, or if it was urban legend, but it still makes me smile. It's just such a snotty thing to do.
My experience with the movie contrasted greatly to my experience in church that morning. It was Palm Sunday, and the story of Jesus's betrayal an execution was read in a simply way by a series of readers, and broken up with an interspersed theme that the congregation sang. For some reason, I was really moved by this, and fought the tears that I hope were hidden behind my glasses. I looked over at my wife, praying she wouldn't see them. She didn't. I managed to control myself, and soon, the tears and all traces of them had evaporated.
Why had I found this more meaningful than the multi-bazillion dollar re-telling of the same story with special effects and Aramaic splendor? It baffled me. Perhaps Jesus's story is best told in a simple way, without the overblown histrionics, pomp and multi-million dollar marketing blasts that inevitably taint any movie that Hollywood touches.

With all of this in mind, I wrote this Sunday evening to be read during Good Friday services this Friday.

Luke 23:33-34

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

Crucifixion is not an easy death.
It kills not through the loss of blood through the wounds on the hands and feet, but through heart failure or asphyxiation. There is absolutely nothing merciful or quick about it. After being publicly mocked and flogged, the condemned was forced to carry a several-hundred pound cross to the site where he was to be killed. Once there, he was hung upon the beams using nails or ropes. On the cross, the condemned could do nothing to avoid the jeers of the crowd, their insults, their contempt, their spit, their hatred. With arms held fast on a cross beam, the condemned could not even so much as wipe the sweat from his brow that stung his eyes under a hot, mid day desert sun - let alone fend the crows that would soon be feeding on his corpse.
Any mercies granted during crucifixion are merciful only in context. If a prisoner was thought deserving of mercy, both of his knees would be broken so that he would suffocate faster.
According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus died after six hours on the cross. The historian Josephus called crucifixion “the most wretched of deaths,” as it was possible for someone’s crucifixion to last for days. Only in context is six hours on the cross merciful. Cicero, the Roman orator, said that crucifixions “rarely took less than 36 hours.” After death, the condemned were left to rot in the sun, on the beams where they died, to serve as a message to those the Romans ruled.
Jesus knew all of this in advance, just like we know about the electric chair and lethal injection today. Unlike today’s methods of legal execution, there was no attempt at small mercies, no pretense of trying to avoid that which is “cruel and unusual.”
Jesus knew this - and yet forgave those who gave him, an innocent man, “the most wretched of deaths.” It is the ultimate turning of the other cheek.

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