Because the Catholic Liturgy is More Evocative than the Most Graphic Film

Once you love a book, you’ll seldom like the movie based on it. That’s why I am impressed with Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films: they are surprisingly close to my own imagination of them! That’s also why I was moved by the liturgy for Passion Sunday today. Because I had seen “The Passion of the Christ” again on Friday evening, and the film pales in comparison with the liturgy. Sorry, Mel.

It helped that I experienced today’s liturgy twice: once at 8:15 as a reader of the Passion according to Luke and at 10:30 as a singer in the choir. And it probably helped that I am on the brink of geezerhood—tired of graphic violence and with a heart opened, now and then, to the presence of Christ, not in history, not up there in every bleeding pixel on the IMAX screen, but here, now, in my church, in my life, in my heart.

Christ was present at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church today.

The Passion (Palm) Sunday liturgy may have been enacted in your church as it was in mine, with the priest at the rear saying the opening prayers, followed by the Gospel reading about Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. Then there was a procession up the aisle, reenacting that moment awesome to think of, when the people who would scream “Crucify him!” only a few days later knelt and laid cloaks in the mud before Him, as He rode in. Willingly He came, knowing the destiny that was riding to meet Him. It is a vignette with so much to ponder, to digest, to be grateful for—and here it was, being enacted, incarnated in our midst: with little girls in bonnets clutching bunches of palm fronds and old serious men looking seriously on.

Even the fact that we had our frequent guest priest, Father Hennessey, at 8:15 and our pastor, Father Barnes, at 10:30 made the reality of Christ’s presence more vivid. There are always differences of presentation when you change priests: one has a deeper voice, the other speaks more quickly—like watching two different film versions of the Passion, one with James Caviezel as Christ (above), one with Max von Sydow (below). These differences are irrelevant to the story, the reality, the Presence of Christ.

Two years ago right now, I was on the verge of being received into the Church. Ferde was become my big brother and unofficial sponsor in the Church. Today at 8:15, just two years later, don’t ask me how or why, I was reading Luke’s story of the Passion with Ferde. I was reader #1, Ferde reader #2, and Father Hennessey read the words of Christ.

Then at 10:30, with Father Barnes presiding below, I was wedged into the rear left corner of the choir loft singing Isaac Watts’s “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” with my fellow choir members.

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died;
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

And so on for two more verses. Hollywood doesn’t write scripts like that. They steal them and turn them into bludgeons for the blind, deaf, and dumb, meaning you and me, brothers and sisters. When all they really have to do is to say that Jesus, knowing he faced mortal danger, rode straight toward it, and for us. It happened today, in the center aisle of St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, and probably in your church as well.

  • Moses

    Seriously, at times the liturgy of the Holy Week can be overpowering/overwhelming for me…reflecting on Christ paschal mystery. All I can do to hold back the tears is to let go. And if I ever attempt to describe those emotion or experience, I will be at loss of words to describe it. All it seems to say, "Just surrender."

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks for your comment, Moses. In my second year as a Catholic, I'm just beginning to understand this power of the liturgy. I sometimes wish I had lived all 58 Easter Weeks of my life as a Catholic, instead of 2, but then I might well take it for granted.

  • Moses

    Hello WebsterI think Jesus said it somewhere that the worker in the vineyard get paid the same amount irregardless of whether the owner called them in the first hour of the workday or the last hour. Cheers.

  • Shannon

    Mel's movie? "Mad Max Goes to Jerusalem" I have never seen the movie, but I have listened to it at least 5 dozen times over the years. It doesn't improve with age.

  • Anonymous

    Among the beauties of Catholicism is that things are rarely either/or and are commonly both/and. That is to say — nothing will be as good as Holy Mass — but "The Passion of the Christ" is a work of art. Not everyone, apparently, cares to look upon the suffering of Christ; but those who do take the time to "attend, and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow," will be rewarded in the same way we are rewarded when we contemplate Michelangelo's "Pieta."Pia

  • Stefanie

    Luke's account of the Passion always brings me to tears — far more than any movie…and I am a big weeper at movies. My mom always used to say that you judged how good a film was by how tearful it made you at the end — tears of joy or tears of sorrow.In Luke's gospel, there are those awful awful words after Peter had thrice denied our Lord — "and Jesus looked at Peter" — oh! As Christians, we instinctively KNOW that the look Jesus gave Peter was of the tenderest love — the one only God can give us — far deeper than even a parent's love or spousal love. Why else would it cause Peter to flee and weep bitterly?And then, of course, the other being crucified, maybe trying to hedge his bets, maybe struggling to understand the 'who' of Jesus, "When you come into your kingdom, remember me." That even to 'be remembered' by this Jesus would be enough of a reward. This man wasn't asking to be IN the kingdom with Jesus. He was asking to still be remembered — as we all want to be remembered by Someone/someone after our deaths. Jesus takes it –takes him — takes us all– to the highest level possible: "Today, you will BE with me in paradise." Wow. Be still my heart!

  • Stefanie

    Hmm. I hope this doesn't make it as some sort of weirdo, but I did see The POTC in the movie theater seven times — including on opening day (Ash Wednesday) at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. With each audience — at different theaters, each was vastly different — pentecostals (who stomped their feet and shouted up "Jesus, my Jesus!" at the screen whenever Jesus was struck), mainline Protestants (stone quiet), evangelicals (who afterward announced to the crowd that they were available to help anyone who wanted to be saved), parents with small children eating popcorn (!) throughout the film (and not knowing what to do when the kids started crying), Latter-Day Saints/Mormons who were shocked about the blood — it's not a part of their teachings that Jesus actually suffered — it's my understanding that they don't think about the pain only the reward, and your average moviegoer.A perfect film? By no means, but an interesting one. It surprises me that most teens haven't seen it because 'my mom and dad say it's too violent' — but these same kids will watch the goriest films and play extemely violent video games.I asked my kids if they wanted to go — it was going to be their first "R" rated movie. The two oldest (17 and 14) chose to see it and brought their non-Christian friends. Right now, I'm now sure if the youngest at the time (11) watched it with us. I'm 80% certain she chose to watch it –but as this thread says — nothing compares to our Holy Week liturgical experiences.I did buy the DVD, but rarely rarely watch it. I prefer to think about it in retrospect.

  • Webster Bull

    @Stefanie, Thanks for the accounts of seeing POTC seven times. Wow: what a laboratory for varieties of American Christian experience! I can imagine that when the film first came out, it was a revelation for so many, and exciting to feel that Christ's Passion was being so faithfully and seriously portrayed—even if it is a religious splatter film made by Mad Max.

  • Carrie Sue

    Palm Sunday! I was already in tears by the time the procession finished so I knew this was going to be one heck of a week. Every year, the liturgies of Holy Week make me feel like I'm making a personal retreat. As an RCIA director, it's tempting to let Holy Week become too stressful, too 'all about work' for it to really reach my heart. The Holy Spirit is rather unwilling to let that fly though. With the liturgies, He reaches in and roots out that which would hold me back from letting the realities of the Paschal Mystery seep into my mind and heart. During these liturgies there is a tangibility to Christ's nearness that I simply don't experience in the other weeks of the year (even in the moments throughout the year when God makes me most aware of the True Presence of the Eucharist).

  • Stefanie

    Carrie Sue — I'm with you, kid. This is my 5th Holy Week as an RCIA director. It gets more and more profound every year because –more than the rest of the assembly…and sometimes, more than the priests and deacons…I know the stories of those going forward towards the sacraments of initiation. Our current group of three Elect have been together since May, 2008. As 'we near the end' of this leg of the journey, I am in deep prayer for them. This is just about the point where the enemy makes his last efforts to ensnare them. But 'He will set me free from the hunter's snare.'This year, I made certain that all of our RCIA 'busy work' — scripts, retreat odds & ends — were all completed last night. Now, it's three days away from the parish so that I have the time for intense prayer and some fasting…and waiting for Holy Thursday and our final dismissal together. (We read John 17 in its entirety — taking turns with the verses — and then talk about the verse speaking most powerfully to us that night.)My prayers are with you, Carrie Sue! All will be well when we allow ourselves to fall into His arms. Even on this Holy Week, He is willing to carry us.

  • Moses

    My parish priest told us during the Palm Sunday homily that these week is THE week of RETREAT. There is no need to go for any retreat that can speak to us more than what the liturgy of the Holy Week will.It kind of reaffirm the homily when I discover Carrie Sue's comment.