Ron always wants to watch The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday. I can see why, and think that’s great for anyone who wants to. (I always like to watch Zepherelli’s Jesus of Nazareth before Christmas).
But for me, the liturgy and practice of Good Friday is more powerful and real than Mel Gibson’s movie. While the movie is more graphic, the liturgy helps me delve deeper into the reality of what happened that day.
I go to the church, hungry and wilty, since we are fasting. The liturgy continues from the preceding night (the Holy Thursday celebration does not close; people leave the church, only to come the Friday afternoon for the next part of a continued liturgy). It is solemn, silent, and reverent. Many people are packed together in the church, just as many people were packed in Jerusalem at the various places Jesus’ Passion took place. The choir does a dramatic reading, put to music, of the Passion. I go through the story in my mind, being present to it, and to Christ through it. Inevitably, I am holding a squirmy baby, or too hot, or having trouble paying attention or being reverent. But by the most intense moment of the story, when Christ gives up His spirit, I am breath-taken.
There are three reasons the liturgy is better than the movie for me.
1) Every year, it seems that God gives me some gift that I am needing. This year, as the dramatic reading covered the passage about the lance in Jesus’ side, I began to weep. I had not really meditated on that aspect of Christ’s life for such a long time. There is so, so, so much grace in that passage. That part of the story of Christ’s life is unspeakably important, and I had let it slip out of view for me. In the movie, Mel Gibson chooses what to emphasize about the story. He highlights certain things, and other things are in the background. But in the liturgy, the Holy Spirit gets to decide what to highlight FOR ME that year. He can change that every year. It is custom made tailoring for each person’s needs.
2) When I watch a movie, I am sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned room, belly full and feet propped up. But when you are standing in a church and fasting, you are sharing in some tiny way in the Passion. In watching the movie, I can feel the polarity between His suffering and my comfort. But in a Good Friday liturgy, I see the wisdom in how we have been guided to fast and come for this long service, so that we can participate in some way, and be connected on some level, with Christ’s suffering.
3) The Good Friday liturgy is a thousand years old. Compared to a movie, the Catholic Church’s liturgy has the advantage of being shaped by the greatest, holiest and most educated minds of hundreds of years. If Mel Gibson had authorities advising him on the movie, think of how much better advised this liturgy is! The liturgy is authoritative, trustworthy and penetrating in a way that a movie can never be. I think it is because of this trustworthiness that I can go deeper into the meaning. I trust the liturgy to take me where the Spirit of God wants me to go, and I can yield to Him in that way.
There is NOTHING WRONG with the movie (and Ron and I might well be watching it this afternoon, since he did not get the chance yesterday!), in my opinion. But the comparison reveals how vivid and real and powerful the Catholic liturgy is to me, and how indebted I am to liturgies of this kind for the way they bring my faith alive.