The flaws in dramatising the passion of Christ in local churches

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Theologians are unanimous that man is an image-loving and image-making being. He likes representing his feelings, his thoughts, and his worldview in a concrete form, mostly through creative arts. This must be why God placed a caveat against abuse of this inherent image-making trait, and forewarned against worshipping images, in place of Him, the true living Creator (Ex. 20:4-5).

He would choose to save the world in the person of Christ Jesus, the image of the unseen God (Col. 1:15), because man innately and readily connects with that which he can see empirically, palpate concretely and re-produce in physical reality at will. He has strong affinity for sensory perception.

That may also have informed Jesus’ use of corporeal parables to teach his listeners in order to visualise in the finite minds of men, the abstract spiritual dimensions of salvation. Even the invisible pain God bored, the damage the sin of Adam caused Him, had to be represented, in a more physical form, on Christ, especially during the last 12 hours to his death on Calvary.

More so, the first post-resurrection apparition of Jesus to his apostles witnessed a certain Thomas, who was absent at the episode, say that unless he could see physically, the wounds, and insert his fingers, into the groove the nails made in Jesus’ palm, he would not subscribe to the news of the resurrection (Jn. 20:25).

People, especially the first century christians sustained with pius awe, the memory of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. But as years go by, the passionate emotional appeal of that salvation event tends to dissipate off their minds and hearts. It was diminishing into the mist of distant history, and began to resemble folkloric narrative; so the early fathers of the church thought it wise to put forward a documented version of the sacred tradition called the Bible. This publication of the Bible, 400 years after Christ, helped renew that mental imagery and physical sense of the Pasch among the people again.

But after 2,000 years, coupled with the sophistication of modern world in technological advancements, some Christians began to feel that something more ultrapractical than scriptural need to come forward.

And so, in 2005, a veteran American actor, film director, producer, and screenwriter, Mel Columcille Gerard Gibson gave the world “The Passion of Christ”, an epic Biblical drama film starring Jim Caviezel as Jesus of Nazareth.

In Christianity, the word “Passion” (from the Latin verb patior, passus sum; “to suffer, bear, endure”, from which also “patience, patient”, etc.) is the short final period in the life of Jesus Christ. Depending on one’s views, the “Passion” may include, among other events, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his cleansing of the Temple, his anointing, the Last Supper, Jesus’ agony in the Garden, his arrest, his Sanhedrin trial, his trial before Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion and his death on Good Friday, his burial, and the resurrection. Those parts of the four canonical Gospels that describe these events are known as the “Passion narratives”.

That was where Mel Gibson got the title for his film. The movie appealed to the hearts of all men (christians and non-christians alike) as they began to re-envision afresh, the ordeal our Lord underwent to reconcile man to God. It was a near perfect, cinematographic transposition of the historical event of the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the accounts of the Gospel.

The movie was so real and flawless, it drew protest from a section of the Jews, that it could provoke global anti-Semitic stigma against them.

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas disagreed with allegations of antisemitism and wrote in Townhall: “To those in the Jewish community who worry that the film might contain anti-Semitic elements, or encourage people to persecute Jews, fear not. The film does not indict Jews for the death of Jesus.”

Pope John Paul II watched the film in his private apartment with his Secretary, Archbishop Dziwisz on Friday and Saturday, December 5 and 6. And on December 17, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan reported John Paul II had said “It is as it was.”

Since that great movie was produced, many local parishes, across Africa have tried without success to mimick Gibson in re-imagining the passion of Christ every Good Friday. But, lacking in resources and expertise needed to paint the real-time plot of the Crucifixion drama as Gibson did, most parishes ended up mesmerizing the whole episode and making mockery of the message of the greatest intervention of God in man’s life.

Year after year, we are treated to a plethora of comedies in the name of playing the drama of Christ’s passion. The mock ‘Jesus’ was nothing short of a jester, battering the intuitive mental imagery of our salvation story. The struggle to make a better episodes by these group of youngsters who feature in the dramas remains peasantry. During last year’s Good Friday, in one of the parishes up north, a simple coherent pronunciation of “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” eluded one of the makeshift actors and became object of comic relief. The video went viral as comedy skit. That’s sacrilegious!

Countless other incidents of such profane representation of that sacred historical event abound across many dioceses. If we can’t do it well, then let’s not do it all. An ecclesiastical latin phrase suggested that anything worth doing, is worth doing well — “aege quod aegis.” The realness of the paschal mystery can still be relived in our faculties without these mundane theatrics.

The Holy spirit, not drama, remains the principal inspirer who afires our faith in the paschal mystery beyond sensory perception.

This year’s edition was the worst. Hideous images (real or imaginary) of former Imo governor, Sen. Rochas Okorocha acting the mock Jesus on the cross, showcased on the fringes of internet, saying he has offered himself to be crucified to save Nigeria. And while the joke tarried, the tragic news of Suel Ambrose, a seminarian at Claretian University of Nigeria, Nekede, Owerri, slumping and dying while acting in a ‘Passion of Christ’ drama on campus, wounded the cyberspace.

The 25-year-old student of philosophy died on Good Friday while acting in his role as Peter in the drama. He was taken to the school hospital, and later to the Federal Medical Center in Owerri, where he was pronounced dead.

We have seen priests slumping and dying at Holy Mass. We have seen Moslems die at the annual ritual of stoning the devil in Mecca. We have seen traditional chief priests slump to death before their deities.

Much as we regret the young seminarian’s death (an end that can occur at anytime), the reason why this piece advocates for a stop at the dramatization of passion of Christ in parishes without the wherewithal to make it impactful is majorly for obvious points raised above, not just because of his ill fate.

Anyone going to church on Good Friday (the only aliturgical day in the whole world) aims at devoutly contemplating the salvific sacrifice of Calvary, not finding humour in some ‘offensive’ puerile dramas of the Passion.

The organizers should be serious enough to put in quality time, resources and efforts to gift us something that is worth the name or stay off. Gibson himself had this to say of his own: “I wanted it to be shocking; and I wanted it to be extreme…So that they see the enormity of that sacrifice; to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule. That was the message resonated by the film.”

May daylight spare us!

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