Jim Cavielzel, the actor who portrayed Jesus in the 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, confirmed recently that a sequel focusing on the resurrection of Jesus was in the works. My first reaction to this news, I admit, was a mix of skepticism and interest: assuming it follows the scriptural “script,” I know already how the movie ends, but I would be sure to see the movie on the big screen. My second reaction was one of gratitude. On February 25, 2004—Ash Wednesday—a group of coworkers and I took the afternoon off and went to The Passion’s opening. Since then, the film’s images, portraying history’s most central event, have stuck with me. Ever since that first viewing in 2004, I’ve tried to watch The Passion at some point every Lent.
But there is still another reason for being thankful for The Passion of the Christ and, I hope, its sequel (tentatively called, according to reports, “The Resurrection”). I’ve found the 2004 epic a truly useful tool for understanding, and helping others to understand, the liturgy itself.
Consider the similarities between the Mel Gibson movie and the Mass. Both have as their content, the passion of Christ, the high point of Jesus’ saving work. (As an aside, The Passion of the Christ and its sequel could, together, give a clearer picture of the Paschal Mystery—the suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension—that is the content of every liturgical celebration.) In a recent catechesis on the Mass—part of his regular Wednesday audiences in 2018—Pope Francis said, “This is the Mass: to enter this passion, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus; when we go to Mass it is as if we’re going to Calvary itself” (see full text of the Holy Father’s audience, below). Both movie and Mass share the same subject matter, Jesus’ passion.
Here’s another similarity between cinema and celebration: both convey the passion of Christ using a tapestry of outward signs and symbols. Director Mel Gibson, for example, uses actors, such as the above-mentioned Jim Caviezel, who portrays Jesus, and Maia Morgenstern, who plays the Blessed Virgin Mary. He uses specific texts: most of the film employed Aramaic, with some occasional Latin, and were based on the scriptures (and colored in by the writings of Catholic mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich). A soundtrack, itself nominated for “Best Original Score,” accompanies the film. Characters wear costumes from the time of Christ; sets and scenery bring ancient Palestine to us—or us to it. The actors use props such as crosses and scourges, and bread and wine, with commensurate actions and gestures. In short, the director’s art employs many devices: people, text, music, costumes, actions, sets.
It ought not to be a stretch to recognize similar elements in the sacramental liturgy, especially the Mass. While those involved in the liturgy are not actors, the Mass’s rites include people and ministers: priest, deacon, lectors, servers, and assembly. A script must be followed by each, much as the movie’s actors do, although these texts are from the Missal and Lectionary. The choir and musicians provide a “soundtrack,” including the singing of dialogues, Mass ordinary, antiphons and hymns. Vestments are worn, and the Mass’s many ritual actions are assigned particular places, such as the chair, the altar, and the ambo. And items such as chalices, thuribles, and candles accompany the Mass’s many ritual actions, including blessing, bowing, and processing. Like the movie, The Passion of the Christ, the Mass’s version of the passion of the Christ weaves together many threads to depict its content.
But despite such similarities, there is an important way in which movie and Mass differ: one is real, the other is not. When it first came out, critics described The Passion of the Christ in such terms as “realistic,” “graphic,” “true to life,” or “visceral.” Nonetheless, the movie is not, in reality, the actual passion of Christ. This is not to say that the movie is not meaningful or moving—it is not difficult to find stories of conversion—from average Joes turning back to the Mass of their childhood to hardened criminals turning themselves in to law enforcement—after seeing the film. All the same, Mel Gibson’s movie does not present the passion of the Christ with the same reality that the Church’s Mass does. A film director’s signs are simply not as effective as the Church’s sacramental signs—Gibson’s work may be graceful in execution but it does not, like the Mass, provide the channel of grace afforded by the Mass.
Again, Pope Francis’s catechesis on the Mass says it plainly: “The Mass is experiencing Calvary; it is not a spectacle.” The movie is a production, a show, and its viewers are just that, “spectators” who watch, even if with intense involvement. The Mass, on the other hand, is the representation of Calvary—indeed, the whole mystery of Christ—truly present before us. The faithful don’t simply watch this saving work carried out before them, but are called upon to join with it, to become co-actors along with Christ.
If this analogy, with its similarities and its differences, is true, then consider the consequences for the Sunday morning Mass. The “director” of the Mass, the presiding priest, along with his ministers, are obliged to celebrate the rite according to the script, and in the most beautiful way possible. Can you imagine if Jim Caviezel went off script? What if the soundtrack’s composer incorporated (for example) a banjo? How would the audience react if the movie had been filmed in the arctic circle (or at any rate, a location that didn’t resemble Palestine)? At the Mass, of course, it is the Holy Spirit who is “the artisan of God’s masterpieces” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1091), and Jesus himself is the primary actor—the efficacy of the Mass is not principally dependent upon our human skills. Still, the Church today speaks of ars celebrandi, an “art of celebrating,” where the ministers and the many other elements of the liturgical rite come together to portray the radiant Christ in all his glory.
Another consequence of the real passion of the Christ at Mass devolves upon the participants. While the Church’s ministers have the obligation to celebrate the Mass so that Christ’s saving work is revealed, the Church’s participants are called upon to actually participate in this work—and not simply “watch” it or, worse, not watch it. Important activities require not only execution, but preparation and follow-up. A job interview, for example, requires preliminary legwork, attentive presentation during the meeting, and subsequent contacts and reflection. So, too, is it the case with the Mass. Participating in the passion of the Christ can’t be something one stumbles into mindlessly. When I think back to seeing the movie on that Ash Wednesday in 2004, I remember arriving early and choosing a seat for the best viewing. There was no popcorn and Coke during the film (Ash Wednesday aside, The Passion didn’t lend itself to the usual customs of a moviegoer). And when it concluded and I was on my way back to the office, my regular temptation to turn on the radio or engage in some other worldly distraction was easily checked by my experience in the theater earlier that day.
Whether it’s the weekly or weekday Mass, or the Paschal Triduum at Lent’s end, roll out the red carpet for these liturgies and see them for what they really are: the Passion of the Christ—more real and powerful than any movie could ever be.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.