A story? Mary’s role in the Passion movie hitting a nerve

textAn Orthodox priest friend of mine offered an interesting observation, in response to the Harvard Divinity School’s pseudo-academic panel discussion about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” He writes:

I was struck today in a conversation with one of my catechumenal families who had just returned from seeing the Passion. The question came up, “Did you cry?” The answer was “a little,” but with addendum, “Whenever there was interaction between Jesus and his mother.”

I thought this was insightful, also because I thought the film, inter alia, gave a good treament of that relationship. And the comment was correct — the portrayal of that relationship makes you weep. Why? It would be a good discussion starter for protestant/catholic/orthodox on the topic of the Theotokos.

You know what? I have talked to lots of people who have had precisely the same response. There are people who are moved by the whole film and then there are many people whose reactions are more complex. They admire parts and reject others. They find some parts of the film over the top and deeply flawed, while other parts are — no doubt about it — quite moving.

And, even among Protestant friends, I have heard people say that the moments that grabbed their hearts had to do with Mary — the flashback to Jesus falling as a child, the sight of Jesus bravely pulling himself back to his feet under the lash, when he realizes his mother is watching. Then there is that final Pieta shot that defines the whole movie.

Putting my reporter’s hat back on for a moment, I wonder if there is an uncovered story here, a news story more nuanced than the black and white critical and political responses. All along, I have been waiting for the Protestant shoe to drop, so to speak. Mel Gibson’s film is soaked in old-fashioned Roman Catholic images and themes, which is one of the reasons it is so profoundly offensive to many American Catholics. They know what they are seeing.

Yet many evangelical and even fundamentalist Protestants DO NOT know what they are seeing. Yet they are moved all the same. Why is that?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mark Thompson-Kolar

    I’m a former Catholic (now Lutheran LCMS); I found the scenes with Mary and Jesus to be absolutely wonderful, while my inner editor recognized that their enhancement added to the “Catholicization” of the film. My lifelong-Protestant friends who saw the film with me seemed to have no similar reaction, but saw the Mary scenes as simply a beautiful and moving aspect of the movie, without necessarily relating them to Catholic viewpoint. I would submit that most Protestants have *no* problem with Mary as a caring, beautiful, loving and very human part of Jesus’ account on earth. What they *do* very much object to is her deification beyond what scripture tells us — problematic in her supposed bodily assumption and heretical in treatment of her as co-redemptrix.

  • Marinda R.

    > …many evangelical and even fundamentalist Protestants DO NOT know what they are seeing. Yet they are moved all the same.

    ??? Alternate observation: many men and even people who do not have sons DO NOT know what they are seeing. Yet they are moved all the same.

  • http://LlynM. Llyn

    Longfellow wrote, “Even He that died for us upon the cross, in the last hour, in the unutterable agony of death, was mindful of his mother, as if to teach us that this holy love should be our last worldly thought — the last point of earth from which the soul should take its flight for heaven.”

    For me, the scenes with Mary resonated because they personified the ideal of a mother’s perfect love. The longing for a mother who loves us fiercely is, I think, universal.

    Someone once said, “What are Raphael’s Madonnas but the shadow of a mother’s love, fixed in permanent outline forever.”

  • Stephen Freeman

    Mary is not a personification of a Mother’s love, but rather the love of a mother for her son is but a shadow of the love between Mary and her Son. But having said that, my point that Terry referenced in the beginning of this piece, is really something I hear people’s hearts telling them. As Pascal said, “The heart has reasons that Reason itself knows not of.” As an Orthodox priest, I believe that Gibson’s film evokes more than the sentiment of a mother’s love, and far more than a “caring, beautiful, loving and very human part of Jesus account on earth.” Of course Mary is human, and merely human. But her part, as is true of the whole human story, is not merely a subset of the “Jesus account” on earth – the “Lamb was slain before the foundations of the earth.” Whatever our role, and her role, is – it was foreseen and written into the very stuff of heaven and earth before ever there was a heaven and earth. When Eve sins, she is told about another Eve who would come , “Whose seed will bruise [the serpent's] head and whose heel the serpent would in turn bruise.” Whatever Eve’s relationship to the first sin, Mary’s relationship to that sin’s healing must be included. That’s the way the story was told – and the way the Fathers interpreted it – Luther included.

    I would particularly like to compare certain moments in the film to the Vladimirskaya icon of the Mother of God,which, interestingly, is part of the trademark of the company producing Gibson’s film. I cannot see that icon (a reproduction of it hangs on my church’s iconostas) without having the same feeling as I (and apparently others) had where Mary was present in the movie. Don’t mean to be pig-headed about all this – but I’m Orthodox.

  • James Freeman

    Co-redemptrix heretical? The fact that Mary cooperated in the remdemption of fallen humanity heretical?

    OK, how about THIS scenario:

    Gabriel: Hail, Mary, full of grace!

    Mary: Piss off, wing boy!

    Final result: God the Father goes back to square one in the quest to overcome original sin.

    Unless one rejects the doctrine of free will, Mary COULD have said no. But she said yes, and because of that yes, we are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.

    As far as the film goes, the violence didn’t affect me that much. Mary, however, broke my heart and reduced me to tears every time.

    Fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants do not understand that they have embraced the most Catholic film — maybe one of the most Catholic *things* — I have ever seen.

  • http://laurel.ocs.mq.edu.au/~leccles Lance Eccles

    It certainly occurred to me while watching the film that Mary’s role is pivotal.

    We see the Passion through her eyes, and like it or not, are drawn to acknowledge her role in the Redemption.

    Some Fundamentalist Protestants have realised this and reacted strongly. The intensely Calvinist site at http://www.sermonaudio.com is full of diatribes against the film. Many there see it as a seduction by Rome of innocent Evangelicals.

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com ELC

    “What they *do* very much object to is her deification beyond what scripture tells us”? Deification? As a former Protestant, now Catholic, I object strenuously to this slander of the Catholic faith.

  • http://cinecon.blogspot.com Victor Morton

    I’ve read several secular film critics say that very thing … that the best part of THE PASSION, the only ones they really felt moved by (which they otherwise didn’t like) involved Mary. Doing a quick mental survey: two were lapsed Catholics (both writing for alternapapers — the local Village Voice, basically), one a Muslim-turned-atheist, one a Protestant of unknown-to-me devotion (also writing for an alternapaper).

  • steve

    Curious….I saw Catholic influence here and there, but I am not well-schooled enough in the visual imagery of Catholic belief to see it overtly.

    I did go into the film knowing that Gibson is of the “ancient” school of Catholic thought, before the mid-century modernization that occurred at the Vatican II council. But I went looking for elements that were “Merely Christian”, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.

    For all the torture, I will agree that the scenes between mother and son were the most memorable and most heart-rending.

    I also respect Gibson for the way he portrayed Mary. Those who assume a co-redemptrix role will see elements of it in the film, and those who do not see that role will not be confronted with an unfamiliar assumption, or with an unfamiliar argument. They may have their minds opened to a new understanding of Mary’s role in the life of Jesus, but they don’t see overt arguments (or propaganda) for one or the other side of that argument.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Can we be so sure that evangelicals don’t know what there are seeing, since there are so many former Catholics among them?

    This is one of the great underreported stories. In 1999, William Martin estimated there were 11 million former Catholics in the US,–there are no current stats on how many people leave the Catholic church (or any other church) and then end up somewhere else.

    I’ve heard Willow Creek, for example, referred to as the largest Catholic church here in Chicago.

  • JM Matkin

    I went to see this film somewhat reluctantly and came away with a mixed, complex reaction. Like so many others here, however, the most moving moments for me were certainly those with Mary. Her first scene, waking up abruptly and blurting out the words of the Passover haggadah almost like a prayer, captured me immediately. While I felt distanced from most of the rest of the film (Judas’ insanity and death, while fascinating in its portrayal, left me absolutely cold, nor did I find Caviezel’s performance very profound), those moments with Mary kept me from walking out altogether.

    One interesting duality struck me, and I’m curious to see if anyone else saw the same thing. It really came home to me at the moment when Jesus is being nailed to the cross. As Jesus cries out in agony to his Father, Gibson keeps cutting back and forth between Jesus’ pain wracked face and a closeup of Mary’s fingers gouging into the dirt and gravel. Jesus calls for his Father, but it’s his mother who is there. The absent father and the ever-present mother. Just a thought.

  • http://laurel.ocs.mq.edu.au/~leccles Lance Eccles

    An interesting, but slightly obscure piece of symbolism in the film occurs when Judas is about to hang himself.

    Suddenly he is surrounded by swarms of flies emanating from a dead donkey nearby.

    This is a symbol that Satan, aka Beelzebub (“Lord of the Flies”) is at hand and about to claim Judas as his own.

  • http://www.walloworld.com/triggerman Bill Wallo

    As an “evangelical” Christian I acknowledge the charges that Gibson has Mary play a large role in the film, but I’m not certain it was in order to portray her as the co-redeemer of mankind.

    There is another way to look at Mary’s role in the film and the reason we (the audience) tend to react more powerfully in the scenes which feature her, but it is a practical one as opposed to a theological one. When dealing with film – or any story, really, but most especially film – there is a need to have a relational point of entry; a character with whom the audience identifies. Despite the fact that Christ’s suffering is the cornerstone of the film, Mary is the point of reference, and arguably the only character Gibson could have legitimately used to provide the audience with a point of entry.

    We are “witnesses” to the crucifixion, not merely as objective observers but watching through her eyes, feeling her pain, and recognizing that what he endured was for all. Without Mary or some similar “window” character, I think the film would have suffered dramatically, since the audience would have no one to truly relate to.

  • James Freeman


    Congratulations, you’re Catholic!

  • Julianne Wiley

    Most devout Protestants expect to rise bodily. Why would it heretical to believe Mary did so? Granted, in her particular case it’s extra-Scriptural. But heretical? How?

  • Marinda R.

    Maybe it’s because I’m one of those formerly-Catholic-evangelicals, or maybe I’m just being dense, but I’m having trouble seeing where that Catholic/Protestant line should be. I don’t see how someone’s reaction to Mary’s role *during the crucifixion* would depend on seeing her role overall as more than “just” continued obedience to God’s will for herself and her Son. Which, yes, is something that we are encouraged to emulate, even in evangelical churches. And for Mary to be somewhat prepared for the crucifixion could be inferred from scripture; we have Simeon’s prophecy, Mary storing up in her heart and pondering events and comments in Jesus’ infancy and childhood, Jesus’ revelations to the apostles about his death, etc.

    Aside from those who object to ANY retelling/depiction of Biblical accounts that add extra-Biblical detail, and those who are just plain allergic to Catholicism, I wouldn’t expect most Protestants to object to the fleshing out of the Crucifixion story using the details from Catholic tradition that Mel Gibson has chosen; references to her immaculate conception, or still-virgin status, the Assumption or Crowning of the BVM… that would pose doctrinal (and probably artistic) problems…

    The mere fact that there is a focus on Mary doesn’t strike me as specifically Catholic; perhaps “back in the day” that would have been true. Now, it seems like a choice that a Protestant or even secular filmaker could make. (Just try to follow any sensational event in the news without hearing the perspective of “the victim’s family”… I’m also thinking of that recent glurgy Christmas song, Mary, Did You Know? -definitely NOT Catholic, since it flat-out states that Mary is in need of redemption, but it focuses on Mary).

    (tried to give a link for the song, but html tags don’t seem to work here, sorry… maybe just as well… ;-))

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