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"It is as It was..."

On February 25 of this year we will observe Ash Wednesday and begin again the Holy Season of Lent. This is the traditional time during which we prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of our redemption through the suffering, death and resurrection of The Lord. In just six short weeks, we will walk the road of salvation history, listening to the words and stories, watching signs and symbols, seeing unfold before us God's plan and promise for human life. On our Lenten Journey, we will try to reach out and freely embrace the Cross. In small ways, we will test our willingness to die, to obey, to give up something precious, to pay the price of discipleship.

The journey ends in Holy Week and culminates in the celebration of the Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter vigil of Holy Saturday) - our holiest of holy days. Twice during Holy Week we will hear the Passion narrative… this year the passion according to Luke on Palm Sunday, and that of John on Good Friday.

Most of us tend to think we know the Passion story by heart and imagine that we can recount the various events of Jesus' final hours pretty much in sequence. But looking at the two different narratives in the liturgical cycle this year, we might be hard pressed to explain a number of differences in the way Jesus is portrayed.

I mention this because Ash Wednesday this year also marks the debut of Mel Gibson's highly publicized film "The Passion of the Christ." Like most films that deal with the life or death of Jesus, "The Passion of the Christ" has been at the center of publicity (both negative and positive) long before it was even released for review. It has been the focus of controversy by anti-defamation leagues (both Jewish and Catholic); rumors and inconsistent reports of what the Pope did or did not say about the film have been confusing at best and just plain frustrating; and many judgments about the quality of truth presented in the film have been made by lots of folks who have yet to see it.

Our minds' picture of Christ's passion comes from four different sources, products of development over a long period of time and based on the memories and traditions of different post-resurrection communities. They are not meant to be literal accounts of these words and events; each narrative knows a different facet of Jesus and presents a different picture of him based on those memories and traditions. Problems arise when we formulate our idea of the passion on just one Gospel or when we try to piece all of them together into a chronological, coherent whole. Doing this can only deprive the Cross of much of its meaning.

Noted Scripture scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown has described the Passion Narratives as "given to us by the inspiring Spirit, and no one of them exhausts the meaning of Jesus. It is as if one walks around a large diamond to look at it from all angles. A true picture of the whole emerges only because the viewpoints are different."

It is my understanding that Gibson bases his film on a composite of the four Gospel accounts of the Passion. If this is the case, then his portrayal can never be "as it was." Through the film we will definitely learn a lot about the process of crucifixion (which the Romans developed into a science) and it will definitely provoke a lot of questions and soul-searching. It will also provide many "teachable moments" for parishes and small groups. And it will again force us to realize that while hostility towards "the Jews" might have been understandable during the times in which the Gospels were written, such an attitude cannot be continued today and is against our fundamental understanding of Christianity.

Christian living requires work, lots of sacrifice, discipline and love. It takes resolve to be persecuted and ridiculed and mocked for being authentically Christian, for being Christ-like. It takes faith and trust in God to admit our own weaknesses and dependence upon one another - rather than looking at each other's faults. It takes selfless courage to forgive our enemies.

Living the Gospel is a constant challenge. It makes us reexamine our mental attitudes, our actions, our speech, and many of the prejudices we grow up with. Hopefully, as we prepare for the Season of Lent, we will continue to be more sensitive to the ways that we exclude certain people from the embrace of our affection. We will constantly try to resist the deep-rooted suspicions that we nurture against persons who, in some way, are "different" from us.

Our reflection on the Passion should make it possible for people with very different spiritual needs to find true meaning in the Cross. With Luke we can discover that despite appearances, God is listening to us and can reverse tragedy; we can forgive those who do us harm and we can entrust ourselves totally to the Father. And with John we will affirm the victory of our sovereign king who has overcome the world; we will see that suffering and evil have no power over him, or over us whom he has called to Himself.

I fully intend to see Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." I imagine it will be a very moving and powerful film, notwithstanding the advertised violence. I am sure that its visual images will assist me in my personal reflection and prayer throughout Lent. (Although I agree with others who find it interesting that many of those who oppose gratituitous violence in films think it's not so bad if Jesus stars in one). And I am certain, as well, that I will be involved in many discussions - on many levels - about this particular portrayal of Christ.

However: I hope to experience the Christ of the passion through the eyes of Luke and John… not "as it was" - but as it is.

A booklet, titled "The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents," will be available Feb. 23 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which will restate church teachings about the death of Jesus.

The booklet also includes statements by the Holy Father about anti- Semitism; 16-year-old church guidelines for producers of Passion plays on how to sensitively portray Jews; and the central document on the subject from the Second Vatican Council, which declared Christians should not blame Jews collectively for what happened to Jesus.

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