JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–Each semester in my sophomore literature course, I teach an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Dream of the Rood,” in which the narrator has a vision of the cross (a “rood” is a decorative cross used for contemplation) and describes Christ’s suffering.
In the poem, the cross itself speaks, describing the “open and malicious” wounds, the “blood that poured” from Christ and the harsh spectacle of seeing the “God of Hosts grievously stretched out.” My favorite lines, though, are those that describe Christ as a “young hero” who hastens “with zeal to grapple” with the cross and death. Christ is a “warrior” who conquers death through His passion and His resurrection.
Class discussions always turn to how the poet depicts Christ. My students always remark how they had never thought about Christ as a hero. Many even observe that the idea makes them uncomfortable. There is something disconcerting about the notion of Christ as a warrior who grapples with death on our behalf.
When we finish with The Dream of the Rood, I follow it up with the words to two great hymns: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Alas! And Did My Saviour Bleed.” The lyrics of both hymns are great poetry in their own regard, but when we read such words as, “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, / Or thorns compose so rich a crown,” or “Was it for crimes that I have done / He groaned upon the tree?” it often becomes the most moving moment of the semester’s studies. Sometimes I am moved to tears as I read those words, in spite of the fact that I’ve taught them in a score of classes over the last decade.
I know that the trailer for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ” makes me squirm and brings me to tears; I don’t know how I will make it through the film itself. In fact, I can hardly take communion without being reduced to tears as I contemplate Christ’s suffering for my sins.
Many reviewers of The Passion have wondered how the film will sit with Christians. For example, Kenneth Woodward’s opening day review in The New York Times observed that “Mr. Gibson’s raw images invade our religious comfort zone, which has long since been cleansed of the Gospel’s harsher edges.”
Indeed, we live at ease in our American Zion. We have air-conditioned sanctuaries, padded seats and altars that bear few decorations other than the occasional satin and silk worship banner or Christian flag. For us, Jesus is the babe in the manger, depicted by a favored child each Christmas season. Sometimes Jesus wears a bathrobe at Easter season while the choir sings about the passion. Our imaginations have sanitized our images of Christ until He is less than divine and often less than manly. He is a “good guy,” like most of us, who does nice things to help make the world a better place. Such a view, though, underestimates the ineffectiveness of our good works in the face of the weight of our own sins.
Occasionally I also teach a 14th-century work, the “Gesta Romanorum,” that sums up the truth about Christ’s redemptive work. In the brief story, a man has a vision of heaven where he sees a balance scale. On the one side of the balance he sees all of his sins piled up. The balance tips over as far as it will go, for there are a few good works in the opposing side but they cannot budge the weight of the sins. The man cries out in despair, “Shall it not help that thou died for me and suffered thy painful passion for me?” At that point, a great nail falls into the balance, overshadowing the weight of the sins and signifying the full gravity of Christ’s redemptive act.
That redemptive act was no dream-vision; it was the ultimate act of heroism from the Creator Himself, who longed to redeem His creation from sin. As Isaiah prophesied, our Redeemer “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (53:5-6, NIV).
Perhaps The Passion will challenge our thinking to move beyond our comfortable American Christianity. Perhaps we will be compelled to remember what it is like to be lost and hopeless. Perhaps we will find ourselves enabled to act on our theology and not just speak of it. Perhaps we will be motivated to act heroically in a world that is desperate for heroes who will sacrifice their lives for others, one small act of kindness at a time, in emulation of the Hero who did so for us.
I pray that Mel Gibson’s Passion will help us to rediscover the forgotten Hero whom we worship, a Hero who conquered death, who released the captives, and who desires to have a personal relationship with each of us.
Gene C. Fant Jr., chairs the English department at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.