Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," grossing nearly $400 million in just six weeks of U.S. exposure, has forced a Hollywood establishment that once looked down its nose on devout Christians to realize that they are an avid audience starving for movies that take their religious sensibilities seriously. But the movie may do something else in the long run: transform the texture of U.S. Christianity itself.
Sociologists of religion have observed that Americans, although deeply religious, prefer an optimistic religiosity that downplays sin and suffering and emphasizes warm fellowship and happy endings: Veggie Tales and the Prayer of Jabez, not Augustine's "Confessions" and Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
That may be one reason why Christmas, with its gift giving and all-around good cheer at the arrival of a newborn, generally is viewed as the premier Christian holy day in America. Christmas is lights, trees, Santa Claus and an official day off from work and government business.
Not only is Easter not a day off for most people (it falls on a Sunday, after all), but many government entities and businesses fail even to notice officially that it has taken place. As for Good Friday, the day of Jesus Christ's death, the American Civil Liberties Union has worked to erase all traces of its commemoration from U.S. public life.
Easter, with its colored eggs and Peeps, can't compete with merry Christmas in terms of feel-good Hallmarketability -- and it shouldn't try: Easter is inherently solemn. "The Passion of the Christ" violently shifts the focus of Christian attention directly onto Easter and the bloody events in the life of Jesus that preceded the first Easter: humiliation, pain and death.
When I was a child, one of our town's local movie houses annually showed Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 movie about Jesus, "King of Kings," during the week before Easter. Even though the days of silent films were decades gone, the movie attracted thousands of fascinated viewers to DeMille's riveting images of Jesus on the cross and a vampish Mary Magdalene played by Theda Bara in a brass brassiere.
"The Passion of the Christ" is likely to be the new "King of Kings," a cinematic ritual of Holy Week in American movie houses for years to come. If so, Mr. Gibson's film could well shift the focus of American Christianity from happy Christmas to serious Easter, bringing a welcome gravitas to a superficial, self-gratification-obsessed U.S. religiosity.
That is one view. The other is that the sociologists of American Christianity (best exemplified by Stephen Prothero, author of last year's "American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon") were just plain wrong, and that the Ned Flanders cheeriness and blond-wood megachurch furnishings beloved of contemporary American Christians actually mask their deep awareness that all the bland cheeriness was purchased at a great and terrible price.
Certainly Easter Sunday, the feast of Jesus' resurrection, not Christmas, the feast of his birth, was always supposed to be (and technically speaking still is) the greatest holy day in the Christian year. As early as the writing of the Book of Revelation, attributed to Jesus' Apostle John in the late first century, Christians were calling Sunday "the Lord's Day" because Jesus was supposed to have risen from the dead on the first day of the week.
By the second century, the writing of Easter sermons dealing with Jesus' passion and resurrection was a common activity. Today, at least in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches (but also among many Protestants), Easter is surrounded by a penumbra of additional commemorations: Lent, Good Friday, the celebration of Jesus' ascension into heaven 40 days after the resurrection, and Pentecost. In the early church, nearly all converts to Christianity were baptized on the Saturday just before Easter, lending the day even more significance.
Christmas, by contrast, was scarcely celebrated by the earliest Christians, as far as we know. Many early theologians held the view that celebrating a birthday was a pagan custom and that good Christians should celebrate only the day on which a saint died and entered heaven. Those who did keep Christmas during this early time could not agree on what day of the year to assign for the celebration, for the Gospels do not say when Jesus was born. It was not until the late fourth century that Dec. 25 -- a date that pagans in Rome had celebrated as the birthday of the sun god -- became Jesus' official birthday.
Even after that, Christmas was for many centuries a solemn second Easter rather than a feast of merriment. The Frankish King Clovis I picked Christmas Day in 496 for his baptism as a Christian, and Charlemagne was crowned Roman emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800.
It was not until the 12th and 13th centuries, with the absorption of religious elements from pagan Northern Europe -- holly, the yule log and the increasingly popular creche -- that Christmas came to be regarded as a day of luxury eating, good times and special appeal to children.
Meanwhile, Easter retained its religious pre-eminence, and the Western church added new festivities, such as the feast of Corpus Christi, that prolonged the Lenten-Easter season from February or March through May or even early June. Easter itself was a four-day celebration with a distinctive liturgy. It began with a commemoration of the Last Supper on the preceding Thursday and continued through Good Friday and the lighting of the paschal candle on Saturday before concluding on Easter Sunday.
During the later Middle Ages, a new kind of devotion arose to the Crucifixion and sufferings, the very blood of Jesus, expressed in Passion plays, Stations of the Cross, and intense visionary literature, such as the writings of Julian of Norwich during the late 14th century. This literature encouraged late-medieval Catholics to dwell upon and identify with Jesus' pain and bloodshed as a way to understand the horror of their sins and to experience the depth of God's love for them.
This new kind of highly affective Catholic devotion, accompanied by detailed graphic meditations on Jesus' torments, did not die with the Middle Ages. Mel Gibson's favorite mystic, Anna Katharina Emmerich of 19th-century Germany, was a direct heir to this tradition.
Nor, after the Reformation, was intense devotion to Jesus' cross a peculiarly Catholic phenomenon. Martin Luther, for example, wrote emotionally about Jesus' last sufferings in his sermons and hymns. So did the Anglican divines of the 16th and 17th centuries, and so did Moravians, Pietists (including Johann Sebastian Bach) and other German Protestants of the centuries after Luther.
Revivalist Christianity was no exception. This form of worship, which began in late 18th-century England with the Wesley brothers and fueled the spread of homegrown charismatic and Pentecostal strains of Christianity throughout the United States starting in the 19th century and continuing to this day, also feeds upon intense devotion to Jesus' cross. Those who think Mr. Gibson somehow foisted a retrograde Catholic sensibility upon evangelical Protestants by persuading their leaders to endorse the "Passion" do not understand how deeply Mr. Gibson's portrayal of Jesus' last hours resonates with many strains of Protestant theology and tradition.
That being said, Protestantism is, of course, different from Catholicism in that it instinctively distrusts visual representations and symbols such as creches or crucifixes as encouraging worship of the symbol rather than the divine reality behind it. Moreover, America's first and perhaps most culturally influential Christians were Puritans, who not only distrusted symbols, but were radically iconoclastic, ruthlessly eliminating all decoration from churches and refusing to celebrate traditional Christian holidays, which they considered pagan.
Christmas disappeared for a while from the American calendar, and so did nearly all the commemoration surrounding Easter, including Lent. In the strictest Calvinist theology, there is no point in meditating upon Jesus' sufferings because they occurred long ago and because God already has decided whom Jesus saved by them.
Christmas inevitably reappeared in American Protestant life because it was fun and because immigrants brought their irresistible customs with them. The Christmas tree (said to have been borrowed from the Hessian mercenaries of the Revolutionary War), Santa Claus (borrowed from the Dutch and Americanized by the 19th-century pop-literati Clement Clarke Moore and Thomas Nast), festoons of lights (probably borrowed from Italian Catholics), and carols (composed in scores for church services by 19th-century divines) made for a welcome break in the chill of winter. It helped that the merchants who benefited financially from Christmas were eager to promote it. Furthermore, these were all ways of celebrating Christmas that did not conflict with the Protestant distrust of visual religious symbols. As a result, they have mostly been given a pass -- barely -- by the ACLU as quasi-secular customs.
Easter, by contrast, has been a more problematic day for largely Protestant America: No card and gift exchanges to fire up the merchants, no Santa Claus (the Easter Bunny is a pale substitute) and few secular accretions beyond egg hunts and brunches. Furthermore, it is only in recent decades that many Protestants have begun to commemorate Good Friday, much less Lent.
Easter seems a subdued holiday compared to raucous Christmas, so, not surprisingly, most secular Americans just skip Easter. That may be because Jesus' passion and death don't fit in with American optimism, but it is just as likely that a Protestant culture that is deeply ambivalent about religious imagery hasn't known quite how to mark this great Christian feast's significance.
That is where Mr. Gibson's "Passion" may be, among other things, a stroke of marketing genius, giving a huge swath of Protestant America the religious iconography it longs for without forcing on it anything that smacks of overt Catholic idolatry. Despite Mr. Gibson's own Catholic sensibility, Jesus, Mary and the others in his film don't look like the statuary in a Catholic church but like human beings as they might have lived 2,000 years ago.
Yes, the movie draws on the medieval Catholic tradition of the Passion play. However, it also is quite adamantly a 21st-century movie, overtly drawing on film conventions, from music to flashbacks to an appearing and disappearing cinematic Satan, to get its point across. The "Passion" thus offers to many Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants, a rare opportunity to experience the Passion visually and dramatically. Though the meaning of Jesus' suffering and death has always been central to their faith, its expression historically has been limited to the aural media of hymns and sermons.
Seventy-seven years ago, Cecil B. DeMille offered a similar experience, and his "King of Kings" became Protestant America's Eastertide ritual for many years. If Mr. Gibson's film goes on to become a perennial part of America's Easter landscape, it will help restore the public visibility of Easter and remind Christians of the importance of this most sacred of their holy days.
Charlotte Allen is author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."
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