In 1 Corinthians Paul claims that he “decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Indeed throughout Paul’s letters, the earliest Christian documents that we possess, Jesus Christ crucified and raised occupies a central theological place as the lynchpin of Paul’s understanding of humanity’s relationship with God. Paul demonstrates no knowledge of what we think of as the “life” of Jesus; rather the “gospel” for Paul is the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul, however, is not interested in the crucifixion of Jesus for the purpose of displaying Jesus’ bravery, heroism, innocence, or humility. Paul, like most early Christian writers, emphasizes the death of Jesus because of what he understands as its consequences for the building of community. This aspect is most clear in 1 Corinthians, where Paul makes it clear that how his audience “imitates” Christ, that is, Christ crucified, is through the way they behave toward one another in community and particularly how they gather for worship and for the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10–14). The Christian community, behaving in mutual love toward one another, with special responsiveness to the needs of the weakest members, gathers for the common meal and thus “proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). At every turn, Paul connects the centrality of Jesus’ death to the formation of community. Life “in Christ” is predicated upon baptism into Jesus’ death (Rom 6:3) but this new life entails incorporation into a community of brothers and sisters living in the Spirit, freed from the domination of sin and death, and awaiting the consummation of God’s purposes (Romans 6–8). The focus is not on the individual, but on a people gathered around the memory of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
A similar dynamic is at work in the stories of Jesus’ suffering and death contained in the four canonical gospels. Each gospel, in its own way, foregrounds a story about Jesus not to provide a biography of Jesus (how much more we would want to know!), but to express what it entails to be a people gathered in the name of Jesus and what it means to “follow” Jesus. Throughout each gospel, we find indications of the concern for the formation of community; we might think, for example, of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as a teacher of how to settle disputes within the community (Matt 18:15–19). It is the traditions about Jesus’ passion, however, that function particularly to provide a foundation for common life. In Mark, for instance, all three predictions of the passion (8:31; 9:31; 10:33) work toward a definition of discipleship not only as “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” but as a life of profound self-giving service toward one another.
The passion narratives themselves, beginning with the account of the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples (and in John with the footwashing), display their understanding that Christian community is established upon remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. We see this aspect most evidently in the Gospel of John where the cross becomes the focal point for the creation of the Johannine community when, on the cross, Jesus gives the mother and the beloved disciple (who is emblematic of John’s church) to each other (John 19:26–27). This moment is not so much one of Jesus’ personal concern for his mother, as it is highly symbolic of the nucleus of the gathering of those who abide in mutual love. Similarly, Jesus’ dying breath becomes in John the occasion for providing what the circle of followers needs: the phrase translated in English as “he gave up his spirit” (John 19:30 NRSV) in the original Greek also means “he handed over the Spirit,” precisely that gift promised to the disciples earlier in this Gospel to enable them to continue to abide in Jesus’ love (John 14:15–17). All of the resurrection stories, moreover, emphasize either the presence of Jesus’ followers at the empty tomb or their encounter with the risen Jesus. They do so because the gospel writers understand, as does Paul, that God’s purposes in raising Jesus from the dead are made evident in communities that live in accordance with this risen life, empowered by a love that is stronger than death.
What do these reflections have to do with Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ? Very little actually, because it is precisely this concern with community that is missing from the movie. In other words, what is central to Paul and the evangelists about Jesus’ passion and resurrection is lacking here. The movie begins not with the Last Supper or the footwashing, but with Jesus agonized and bereft in the Garden of Gethsemane. It ends, with its ever so brief resurrection scene, neither with the appearance of the women and the other disciples at the tomb nor with any encounter between the risen Jesus and his followers but rather with a somewhat more ethereal Jesus in complete isolation. Here there is no command to proclaim the resurrection, to make disciples (Matt 28:7, 19), or to forgive (John 20:23). There is no instance of reading scripture with one another or eating a common meal, as in Luke 24, when the disciples perceived the presence of the risen Jesus among them. There is no re-incorporation of Peter, following his denial, as John 21:15–19 relates the risen Jesus doing. The movie has also stripped away from Jesus’ suffering and death all of the aspects whereby the evangelists demonstrate the formation of community through Jesus’ passion. Jesus dies, but his breath does not convey the Spirit to his followers; an unnamed male disciple (we do not know he is the beloved disciple) agrees to take care of Jesus’ mother, but it is, to my eyes, a matter of expedience rather than a moment with consequences for the future of people abiding in Jesus’ love as it is in John’s Gospel.
I stress these points not only to emphasize the distance between Gibson’s movie and the New Testament writings about Jesus’ passion but also to elucidate the spiritual dead end offered by the movie. I have heard a few people say that they have been “moved” by the film: the question that properly follows such a statement asks, “moved to what ends?” or “moved to do what?” Throughout the history of Christian spirituality, meditation on Jesus’ passion and death has been encouraged as a means to nurture compassion within our hearts. Compassion begins perhaps as an act of empathy with Jesus’ sufferings, but then flowers in our compassion for the profound sufferings of others, our sisters and brothers throughout the world. Contemplation of Jesus’ passion in prayer thus deepens our awareness of our commonality; it broadens our consciousness of our connectedness one with another both in our need for God and in the movement of divine compassion toward all creation. The ways in which the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection is shaped in scripture serve to remind hearers throughout the centuries that life lived following Jesus crucified and risen is a life lived in loving generosity toward one another, toward friend and stranger, and that such a life reveals divine love.
The Rev’d Dr. Ellen B. Aitken is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School and an Episcopal priest.