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Monday, March 01, 2004

The Film.

Until this morning, I wasn't able to put a finger on my emotions upon leaving the screening. It was an odd sensation that was familiar, but I couldn't categorize it.

Until today.

All of the sudden, I remembered that about three years ago, I was driving home from work. I was on the concrete slalom run known as Interstate 696 (Fun Fact: The middle 6 is upside down!) in northern metro Detroit. About two hundred yards ahead of me, some idiot in the far left lane decided she really needed to get to the exit on the extreme right hand side of the road.

So she cut across three lanes of traffic in her effort to do so. An S-10 pickup in her path tried desperately to swerve out of her way.

He failed.

They made contact at about 70 mph. Her car was knocked back toward the median, and the S-10 began, in seeming slow-motion, a perfect, nightmarish, debris-strewing barrel roll. The traffic behind them began reacting as best it could, but two more contacts were made. I managed to luge around the mess, and pulled up behind a couple of other drivers, just before where the S-10 had skidded to a stop.

The S-10 was resting on its caved-in roof.

I got out, and discovered that miraculously, not only was the driver alive, he was unhurt--apart from perhaps needing a new pair of shorts. In fact, no one in the entire mess was seriously hurt, although the police had no choice but to shut the expressway down.

As I drove away, I felt an odd surge of adrenalin-fueled relief--but for some heedless decisions resulting in a delay of a few seconds here and there, I would have been right in the middle of the accidents. Under those circumstances, who could have said whether I would have been as blessed to walk away?

I rode the rest of the way home in chastened relief and gratitude.

I had the same sensation last night, as I left. That could--by all justice should--have been me. But He took it instead.

The scenes which stand out are many, but one which has particular force occurs after Jesus arrives at Golgotha. He lays on the ground, half-dead already. The cross, too, lays upon the ground. Battered and wounded out of all recognition (Isaiah 53 in spades), he crawls to the cross, and lays upon it. Embraces that which, hours earlier, he was asking to let pass. It is a powerful moment, burning itself into the brain.

The film is filled with them--raw images that etch themselves, willingly or no, into the memory.

Three times, the "fourth wall" is broken, and either Jesus (twice) or Mary look at the audience. The first is Jesus, staring ostensibly at Peter following the third denial. The second also is Jesus, warning the disciples that they will be persecuted for His sake. And the final, most wrenching example is Mary's long, unflinching stare at the Pieta, holding her beloved and dead son. I thought I'd been numbed by that point, but it all came rushing back. I understand those reparation devotions held on the first Saturdays of the month now.

Viscerally. Sin is social, and mine was the reason for which her son died.

I could go on--there is a vision of Hell as a featureless salt flat, and a shriek from Satan in the midst of it at the instant of Jesus' death. Some have interpreted it as a howl of victory. It is definitely not that. Chilling, and it acknowledges a victory, but not the Fallen's.

As I have thought about the film, I think there is a great, ragged cross-shaped hole in American Christian spirituality. There is a tendency to try to beam to the empty tomb on Sunday, bypassing All That Unpleasantness on Good Friday. Catholicism has hardly been immune, what with a treacly, self-centered spirtuality that predominates at far too many Community Affirmation Hours, which never quite get past celebrating what wonderful folk happen to be in attendance.

But this film reminds us there is no way out but through. You can't get to the Resurrection without the Crucifixion. The letters of St. Paul, preaching Christ and Him Crucified, dying and rising with him, reminding us we were bought at a price--all have a fierce new immediacy. My already-strained tolerance of community-centered liturgy has probably frayed beyond all repair.

This film fills that cross-shaped hole in ways that forty more years of Catholicism: Wow! and Josh the Palestinian Tolerance Mascot™ never will.

Which brings me back to the initial point--this is a hard film to love--especially if you can't see the love in what happened on Good Friday. This is not a "Precious Moments" love, a Hallmark card love, a "Greatest Love of All" love. It is a depiction of love as the ultimate sacrifice--a love only God could offer. Only in that way can anyone love this film--a film that captures a seemingly harsh, but wholly redemptive, unflinching, and absolute love that cannot be earned.

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