The Gospel according to Mel

Posted: Feb 24, 2004 12:00 AM

I suppose some ground has to be cleared. On the face of it, the first matter that needs settling, concerning Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" -- I attended a media preview this week -- is the anti-Semitism issue. None, is exactly how much anti-Semitism the film contains. Not a whiff, not a trace, not a pant or a gasp. In saying so, I plead my credentials as a lifelong philo-Semite. If any Gentile cherishes and admires the Jews more than I do, let him advance and be recognized.

Truth to tell, the Romans come off in this movie far worse than the Jews. In the rulers of the temple, one might look for a certain jealousy. This jumped-up carpenter's son -- who does he think he is anyway, with his miracles and mass fish fries?

But the Romans. Ah, the Romans, with their sadism, their scourging and floggings; their random cruelties and lack of pity; ultimately, their denial of justice -- Roman justice if no other kind -- to one known to the procurator as innocent. And then the pious washing of hands -- a basin and towel as remedy for betrayal.

If the Romans are indeed the bearers of civilization and justice, their default in the case of Temple vs. Jesus of Nazareth degrades them spiritually and morally, directing them straightway to Nero. To hear them offend in the tongue of Virgil and Cicero -- the tongue the Roman Church employed for centuries -- is in some sense the greatest of obscenities.

And then it strikes one. It strikes me, I should say. I will speak theologically from here on; no other way of speaking seems quite to meet the case.

The proconsulate, the temple, the ceremonial dress, the plumes and shields and helmets and spears, the saluting, the issuing of orders from horseback -- what is any of it? Nothing, that is what. "Vanity and vexation of spirit," as Ecclesiastes (a nice Jewish book) would have it, "sound and fury," in words Shakespeare would contribute centuries later. To the forms, there is no shape; to the complexities, no center.

The only power in the world is the bloody, half-insensate form on the cross -- beaten to a pulp by the civil power, if you call it "civil." Nor is his kind of power unique to the world. His kingdom, so he tells his accusers, is not of this world. To lay a hand on him is, in the oddest sense, not to lay a hand at all. It is vanity and vexation of spirit.

The miracle of "The Passion" -- and I submit that Mel Gibson may have brought off such an occasion -- is its picture of triumph. Not of defeat and exhaustion, not of blood flowing over paving stones and a mother rent by pain almost equal to her son's. The triumph is what counts here.

We know it is all in the story: in the Scriptures, that is. Haven't we read the tale often enough? What we haven't done until now is ... live it.

The audience for "The Passion of the Christ" lives it in detail That is the glory of the visual. It is what Veronese, Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and hundreds like them have known: visual representation as clothing for truths only partly susceptible to words.

"The Passion of the Christ" may prove for moderns -- uniquely forgetful of what it once meant to kneel, weeping, at the foot of the cross -- a kind of fifth Gospel. The Gospel According to Mel, but not circumscribed by the auteur's human idiosyncrasies; taken from his hands, perhaps, as with Michelangelo's Pieta and fulfilled in ways to be wondered at for years to come.

I cannot know whether John Paul II, upon viewing "The Passion of the Christ," actually used the words attributed to him -- "It is as it was." I know this -- I sense this -- I am beyond measure confident of this ... "It is as it was."