I didn’t see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ when it first came out, and I still haven’t. I don’t want to. Hearing that the movie is grisly, sparing us no detail of the crucifixion, is enough for me. People say it leaves an indelible “special effects” impression of how Jesus died. I wonder whether that is a good thing.
Crucifixion was brutal, and that anyone would deliberately put himself at risk of the cross for others is, of itself, an impressive demonstration of love. But the fact that Jesus was crucified is, to some extent, just a detail. If he had been born a Roman citizen he would have been beheaded. If he had lived in another time or place he could have been hanged, stoned or shot. Today we would have electrocuted him, or strapped him to a gurney for a lethal injection, probably after spending several years on Death Row.
The graphic details of crucifixion focus primarily on making us feel sorry for Jesus, and therefore on wanting us to feel that we “owe it to him” to accept him after all he went through. Many people say that’s the effect the movie had on them. But it seems that the emotion it stirred up was temporary. The movie was touted as “the greatest evangelistic tool for 2000 years,” but it has had a minimal impact on church attendance. Wallowing in the blow-by-blow details of Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion is not as persuasive as some had hoped.
Besides, Jesus and his Father want us to follow him because he lives, because as one of us he not only died, but was raised from the dead and dwells in the joy of perfect communion with the Father and wants to share that joy and communion with us. He’s not looking for your sympathy; he’s looking for you to come home to the love of your heavenly Father and your older Brother. That’s why he took away our sins — to give us life, to call us home — not to garner our pity.
Jesus, the Son of God, the One through whom all things were made and who upholds all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:2) became human for us and died. Maybe it is simply this fact that demonstrates most dramatically the depth and meaning of his sacrifice. For Jesus to face death in any way and in any form was utterly foreign to all that he is.
“In him was life,” John’s Gospel tells us. “That life was the light of us all.” C.S. Lewis, in a discussion about what it meant for Jesus to come and live as a human being, wrote: “The Eternal being who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man, but (before that) a baby, and before that a fetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab” (Mere Christianity, chapter 5). For about 30 years the Creator and Architect of human life shared in its limitations. Then he allowed his life to be ended in a brutal display of cruelty. For three days, the one who was life lay in a cold dark tomb.
I have a friend who has been for many years in a maximum security prison. He has become used to it, and manages to live a productive Christian life. I love and respect my friend, and visit when I can. But the thought of spending even one night in his environment is frightening. It helps me understand just a little bit the sacrifice Jesus made.
Instead of focusing on the depth of Jesus’ sacrifice by remembering how he died, perhaps simply the fact that he died underscores the depth of his love for us. He made our burden his, so that he could make his joy ours. He shared our experience, including death, in order to destroy the power of death over us. Jesus did not ask us to remember his death by dwelling on the grisly details. Instead, he gave us a simple ceremony. At the end of what we call “The Last Supper,” he took some of the leftovers and established the simple ritual that we call communion. “Do it in remembrance of me,” he said.
Communion: the word means “to join with.” To join with others — a reminder of our commitment to love as we have been loved. To share, serve, tolerate and regard our neighbor’s needs as highly as we do our own. Communion is not an empty religious ritual. Nor is it an outburst of emotion after exposure to some masterfully wrought special effects. Communion is something Christians do again and again. But it should never become routine. Each time we accept the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood we commit ourselves to him and to all that he stands for.