Mel Gibson and Thomas Aquinas: How the Passion Works

Father Romanus Cessario Takes a Theological Look

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BOSTON, Massachusetts, APRIL 8, 2004 ( If the violence in «The Passion of the Christ» seems excessive, its director may have had a valid theological reason.

So says Father Romanus Cessario, a Dominican who teaches at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts, in this essay on Mel Gibson’s film.

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Mel Gibson and Thomas Aquinas: How the Passion Works
By Father Romanus Cessario, O.P.

No reviewer to my knowledge has suggested that Mel Gibson read the «Summa Theologiae» before setting about to direct «The Passion of the Christ.»

But he must have read Question 48 of the third part of Aquinas’ «Summa.» There, Aquinas examines how the passion of Christ produced its effect — its efficiency, if you will.

Efficiency is a technical, philosophical term that points us back to Aristotle’s four causes, and urges us to inquire about what is responsible for something coming into being. In Aquinas’ usage, «efficiently» does not connote as it does in modern English the restricted meaning of «working productively with minimum wasted effort or expense.»

Modes of efficiency

The Latin word «modum» may be compared roughly to the English word «model.» The five modes that Aquinas discusses in Question 48 together capture everything that the Gospels communicate about Christian salvation. These modes answer the question, «How does the passion of the Christ accomplish our salvation?» Even the most outspoken critics of Mel Gibson allow that this is the question that he too sets out to answer.

The mode of merit

When Aquinas says that «Christ by his passion merited salvation not only for himself, but for all who are his members, as well,» he introduces the question of the relationship of the cross to the Church.1

Merit denotes the right to a reward. The reward of the passion of the Christ is beatific communion open to every member of the human race. According to the formula of St. Anselm, only God could merit such a grace, while only man should expend the energies to regain what he had lost. Christ is given grace not only for himself but for his members.

We thus call this grace the «capital grace» of Christ inasmuch as he remains the «caput Ecclesiae,» the head of the Church. Some wonder why Christ’s other merits would not have been sufficient to win for us the reward of eternal life. Aquinas replies that Christ did everything from the greatest charity, but the passion remains that «kind of work» best suited to the effects that we attribute to it.

Mel Gibson clearly constructed his film in such a way as to ensure that the viewer understands that this kind of work is ordered to an effect that transcends whatever particular persons or events may be depicted in the drama. It is the passion of «the Christ.»

Like Greek drama, Gibson has cast the film so as to allow its universal significance to emerge slowly from within the consciousness of the viewer. The epic proportions of the film, emphasized by the musical accompaniment, inform the viewer with a sense of the universal and majestic.

The mode of satisfaction

Aquinas takes up a theme that has figured in Catholic theology since at least the early sixth century, but which most students now identify with the work of the 11th-century archbishop Anselm of Canterbury (c.1033-1109), «Cur Deus Homo?»

Aquinas reports the received teaching: «Christ’s passion was not only sufficient but superabundant satisfaction for the sins of mankind.»2 Christian satisfaction falls among the theological themes less well-studied during the post-conciliar period.

At the same time, the renewal of interest in the Eucharist as sacrifice should prompt theologians to return to this mode of Christ’s passion inasmuch as it remains the lodestar for Catholic sacramental practice.

Aquinas holds that Christ’s suffering was all-embracing and his pain so great on account of the dignity of his person that, in addition to other reasons, the satisfaction he offers suffices as recompense for the sins of the world, from the original sin to the last sin to be committed. While merit earns a reward on account of good works, satisfaction entails the acceptance of punishment, of difficult works.

No theme emerges with more clarity in Mel Gibson’s film than that of the satisfaction of Christ. Most commentators have failed to observe that there exists a theological reason for portraying, even, as some have argued, excessively, the sufferings of Christ from the time of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane to his final «Consummatum est.»

If one allows that the scenes of punishment exceed the modesty of the Scriptures themselves, or if we follow those who opine that after such beatings and harsh treatment, no man would be able to shoulder the cross or even walk, there is still the explanation that the artist chose this excess for a theological reason.

A long theological tradition supports this sort of iconographical modification: The Church asks us to ponder the price that the Savior of the world paid. Without this meditation, one cannot embrace the full dimensions of Catholic piety; instead, we would find ourselves moving rapidly toward those various forms of de-sacramentalized Christianity that focus exclusively on interior psychological states.

The mode of sacrifice

Sacrifice, writes Aquinas, «designates what men offer to God in token of the special honor due to him, and in order to appease him.»3

In his discussion of this mode, Aquinas allows St. Augustine to supply the instruction about sacrifice, especially what the Doctor of Hippo says in Book X of «The City of God» (chapters 5 and 6) and in his «De Trinitate.» In short, sacrifice creates unity: «in order that we might remain one with him.»4

Christ’s passion works according to the mode of sacrifice because it results, ultimately, in that union of God and man which we call beatific vision or fellowship. How diverse the lot of those involved in bringing about this unique sacrifice, where Christ is both victim and priest.

Aquinas replies to the objection that since those who slew Christ perpetrated a heinous crime, they could not have accomplished something sacred: «On the part of those who put Christ to death, the passion was a crime; on the part of Christ, who suffered out of love, it was a sacrifice.»5

Mel Gibson portrays this theme with an exactitude that conforms not only to the biblical accounts of the passion, but also to the theological affirmations that have been canonized by the Church with respect to the responsibility of those who had a hand in putting Christ to death.

No one can watch the film and come away without an awareness that there are two kinds of persons surrounding the crucifixion scene: those who believe that what is happening conforms to God’s plan, even if they suffer great sorrow, though not sadness; and those without comprehension of the mystery. The latter class of persons includes, on the one hand, those with natural human sympathies, especially exhibited in the wife of Pilate, Claudia, and on the other, those who exhibit crass indifference, especially the lower ranks of Roman soldiers.

The mode of redemption

The theme of redemption or ransom emerges from the biblical texts where Christ is said to redeem us: 1 Peter 1:18f., «You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways … with the precious blood of a lamb,» and Galatians 3:13: «Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law.»

Christ liberates man from both the punishment of sin itself, the bondage or slavery that sin imposes, and from the penalty of the divine justice that opposes all sin because God who is just cannot act against his justice. Redemption is the opposite of slavery and punishment; «we are freed,» says Aquinas, «from both obligations.»6

The Latin poet and hymn-writer Prudentius (348-c. 410) expresses this ancient truth: «Lo, now to the fai
thful is opened/ The bright road to Paradise leading;/ Man again is permitted to enter/ The garden he lost to the Serpent.»7

This effect of course is possible only because of the work of the whole Trinity. «Christ as man therefore, is, properly speaking, the immediate Redeemer, although the actual redemption can be attributed to the entire Trinity as to its first cause.»8

From start to finish, Mel Gibson does not shrink from including the devil in the dramatic action of «The Passion of the Christ.» The devil, «who would even try to divert Jesus from the mission received from his Father,» appears in androgynous guise not, in my view, as a commentary on contemporary social mores, but to remind the viewers that the devil is «a liar and the father of lies.»9

What people believe to be the good turns out to constitute a lie about the good of the human person. It’s the oldest story in the book. In this case, the book is Genesis. … The passion of Christ reverses the lot of man who had been expelled from the Garden. Christ decisively crushes the head of the serpent.

Should we not recognize in the fact that Gibson places on the lips of Mary Magdalene the question customarily reserved for the youngest son in a Jewish family, «Why is this night …,» and that she asks the question of Mary, Christ’s Mother, a sign that the New Eve now operates. Above all others, Mary, the New Eve, comprehends that great reversal of man’s sorry plight has been inaugurated.

The mode of efficient cause

The final article of «Summa Theologiae» IIIa q. 48 completes the discussion of the passion by clarifying the special status of the one who is Crucified.

«God is the principal efficient cause of man’s salvation. But,» says St. Thomas, «since Christ’s humanity is the instrument of his divinity, all Christ’s acts and sufferings work instrumentally in virtue of his divinity in bringing about man’s salvation.»10

Because it is impossible to represent visually what is invisible, it is difficult if not impossible to represent Christ. Godhead remains invisible. Saints recognize this truth. Blessed John of Fiesole, Fra Angelico, is said to have observed, «To depict Christ, it is necessary to live with Christ.» We should take him at his eschatological word.

Mel Gibson directs Jim Caviezel in a way that, in my view, approaches accomplishing the impossible. There are the Christs of Pasolini, of Zeffirelli, and of Rossellini, but the Christ of Gibson captures what these others were content to accomplish by representing a high expression of human values.

Although I am not an art critic, it seems to me that the very excesses, even the distortions, which some commentators have questioned, in fact aim to show us that this man is more than human. That we have to look elsewhere for the source of his human endurance.

Is it too much a stretch to ask whether Mel Gibson also indicates Christ’s divine nature by suggesting that he possesses infused knowledge? For instance, when Christ designs a 16th-century European table for first-century Palestinians? Or when without effort Christ begins to speak with Pilate in Latin?

Some experts have wondered about the absence in the film of Greek; none to my knowledge have conjectured that the «historical Jesus» would have had the occasion to learn conversational Latin.

We should not leave the mode of efficiency without observing that Gibson does not shy away from visualizing the signs of divine intervention that the Gospels record at the moment of Christ’s death.

«The Passion of the Christ» does not end with musings over the presumed interior dispositions of Jesus’ followers. The film rather concludes with the unquestionable affirmation that this crucifixion results in events of cosmic significance that only God can produce.

Let me conclude with a word about the relationship of Christ’s passion to the Church.

Mel Gibson succeeds in a way that at once stresses the feminine character of the Church — only women touch reverently the sacred blood, Veronica, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and by extension, even Claudia, who supplies fresh linen for the purpose.

And at the same time, he places the Virgin Mother of God, Mary Immaculate, in what is obviously the closest personal contact with the sufferings of her Son. She who is Mother of the Redeemer becomes by that fact mother of all who are redeemed.

We see Mary’s maternal mediation enacted on film. Gibson portrays Mary placing «herself between her Son and mankind [remember the times that Mary looks directly at us!] in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings [remember Peter at her feet]. She puts herself ‘in the middle,’ that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother.»11 The words are from Pope John Paul II. Mel Gibson captures what the Pope writes in «Mother of the Redeemer» in a way that alone merits the film the title «Catholic.»

If we recognize that the Passion is related to the Church, then we also recognize that it is related to the reality of the Eucharistic conversion. There is a sense in which the whole film is about the Eucharist. The Bread of Life.

St. Jerome illustrates this truth: «Why should I not mourn, you say? Jacob put on sackcloth for Joseph (see Genesis 37:35) …, but he only did so because Christ had not yet broken open the door of paradise, nor quenched with his blood the flaming sword and the whirling of the guardian cherubim (see Genesis 3:24; cf. Ezekiel 1:15-20). … For, as the apostle says, ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned’ (Romans 5:14). But under Jesus, that is, under the Gospel of Christ, who unlocked for us the gate of paradise, death is accompanied, not with sorrow, but with joy.»12

«The Passion of the Christ» invites its viewers to recognize that in the eucharistized bread that the joyful Jim Caviezel offers to his priest-disciples we discover the one source of the love that never ends.

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1 «Summa Theologiae» IIIa q. 48, art. 1.

2 «Summa Theologiae» IIIa q. 48, art. 2.

3 «Summa Theologiae» IIIa q. 48, art. 3.

4 «De Trinitate» IV, 14 (PL 42:901), cited in ibid.

5 «Summa Theologiae» IIIa q. 48, art. 3, ad 3.

6 «Summa Theologiae» IIIa q. 48, art. 4.

7 «The Poems of Prudentius,» trans. Sister M. Clement Eagan, «The Fathers of the Church,» vol. 43 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1962), p. 77.

8 «Summa Theologiae» IIIa q. 48, art. 5.

9 See 1 John 3:8 cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 392; also CCC, 394.

10 «Summa Theologiae» IIIa q. 48, art. 6.

11 Encyclical letter of John Paul II, «Mother of the Redeemer,» No. 21.

12 St. Jerome, Letter 39, 4, to Paula, on the death of Blaesilla (Rome 389) in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, v. 6, pp. 51-2.

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