Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as Academic Dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Theology and U.S. Catholic Church History. He has served as a parish priest, high school seminary teacher, and as a Censor Librorum for his Diocese, as well as a theological consultant for NET TV. Fr. Cush is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Tablet and the Albany Evangelist.
In 2003, Mel Gibson released his film, The Passion of the Christ. It was, you might recall, somewhat controversial for its time and I was, as a young priest, drawn into a public debate on the merits of the film.
I was on the positive side (which I was and still very much am) and another priest, a wise and experienced pastor, likewise trained here in Rome, was on the contra. The other priest’s basic argument was not so much the graphic violence, which I believe brought home for the first time the reality of the dolorous Passion of the Lord, nor was it on the grounds of a perceived anti-Semitic tone in the film, but on the level of symbol. He argued that, as a film, The Passion of the Christ pales in comparison to the 1977 Franco Zeffirelli film, Jesus of Nazareth. This priest stated that one could pause any frame in Zeffirelli’s film and have it be a renaissance painting. My retort was that one could do it with Gibson’s film, too, and have it be Nordic, Germanic statuary.
Each of these films, The Passion of the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth, are both beautiful films, but, for me, Gibson’s film wins out.
Yes, the film, The Passion of the Christ, is one that, I believe, has and will stand the test of time. It brought home for me the fact that everything in the Passion is occurring on the natural and the supernatural level. And this is so true, especially in the Passion we proclaim today, from the Evangelist John.
On the natural level, each of those involved in the Passion have a role to play. The Jews in the Johannine Gospel represent everything and everyone in opposition to the reality of the Savior standing in their midst. The Pharisees, blind guides as they are, so enthralled by the letter of the law that they refuse to see the Bringer of the Spirit and the fulfillment of the Law right in front of them. Herod, that fox, crooked, illegitimate political puppet of the Romans, morally bankrupt. Pilate, poor Pilate, who should have just listened to his dear wife more, at least in Matthew’s Passion account. And, of course, the darling of self-justification of some contemporary writers — like John Shelby Spong — Judas, who seems to exist now simply to be explained away as a symbol to take away the blame from the Romans.
Of all of these villains, if you will, on the natural level, on the deeper, more real supernatural level, the real threat is Satan, the prince of lies. This is seriously portrayed in Gibson’s film, especially in some key scenes. Satan, you might recall, in this film, is rather an androgynous character, sometimes being more manly and other times being rather feminine. The two scenes in the film that are the most troubling involve the Blessed Mother and Satan.
In one very difficult scene, the Lord is suffering during his scourging at the pillar and Satan is there, almost as the anti-Blessed Mother. Satan, dressed as the Mater Dolorosa, carries a wizened, wrinkled little baby, rejoicing at the suffering of the Innocent One. As Mary, the New Eve, gives birth to the Lord of Everlasting Life, he who is the Eternal Youth, the New Adam, Satan, the Father of Lies, gives birth to and nourishes old, wrinkly, decaying death.
In the second scene, the Lord is carrying his cross on the Via Dolorosa; on one side of the street, the Sorrowful Mother, weeps, following her Son along, ever the Co-Redemptrix. On the other side of the streets, dressed in a way matching Our Lady completely, walks Satan, laughing and rejoicing in the suffering of the Lord.
Indeed, Satan is the true, ultimate antagonist in this fierce, cosmic drama.
And yet, despite Satan’s rejoicing on Good Friday, the joke’s on him, because he’s lost. And in his pride, in his arrogance, he doesn’t even know it. Again, recall in the film, The Passion of the Christ, the savage, animalistic scream issued from Satan from the very pit of hell when he realizes what the Lord has accomplished for us and for our salvation.
The Medieval, Bavarian tradition speaks of the Risus Paschalum, the Easter Laugh, meaning that for his sermon, the priest would tell a joke to begin. This tradition goes back to Saint Gregory of Nyssa and especially to Saint John Chrysostom, who in his Easter homily, describes Our Lord Jesus confronting and laughing at Satan this day.
In truth, Satan is not the smooth character of Milton’s Paradise Lost or even Goethe’s Mephistopheles. He’s the fat, bloated, fallen angel from Dante’s Inferno, trapped in ice, flapping his little angel wings that have degenerated into bat wings, weeping copiously from his three eyes, and gnawing continually in his three mouths the three greatest betrayers — Judas, Cassius and Brutus. Satan lost and he knows it. And we have no need today to be scared, for our Lord Jesus is our savior.
We need to laugh today, in the midst of our sorrow, in the midst of our repentance, because Jesus, in all this suffering, has won. Satan has lost. The Cross is the tree of life and victory. When we look on this Cross, we do so in awe and joy and say: “O Crux ave, spes unica, hoc Passionis tempore! piis adauge gratiam, reisque dele criminal,” which can be translated as “O hail the cross our only hope in this Passiontide grant increase of grace to believers and remove the sins of the guilty.” G.K. Chesterton writes: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Never forget that the Devil fell by the force of gravity. He who has the faith has the fun.” May our prayer be that of Peter Abelard: “Grant us, Lord, so to suffer with you that we may become sharers in your glory, to spend these three days in grief that you may allow us the laugh of Easter grace.”
From a homily given to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma in Rome, Italy, on Good Friday, 2017