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‘H’Mamate-Christos’: Review of The Passion of the Christos

“In ages to come, it is up to one lapsed young ‘Haleqa’, to take the melodic wealth of ‘Ge’ez’ from vicinities of monasteries to the streets of Babylon, the uncharted territory of the secular world, risking excommunication and cursing. No, no, that is more than Teddy Afro’s “Abugida”. When that happens, when the Eritrean Ray Charles comes along , Eritrean Music will see a new light.

 

Why did the great Dostoyevsky shake to fits of epilepsy when he saw Hans Holbien’s rendition of the dead ‘son of God’? 

 

Pain and Gain 

Few weeks into its opening last year (Ash Wednesday, 2004), the movie was grossing millions of dollars. After being on number one at the box office, it slipped back only to resurrect back to its glory during the Easter weekend. Overseas, it was a huge hit, including in Moslem nations. The filmmaker, Mel Gibson, risked his own fortune and fate for his labor of love, for the movie was rejected by mainstream Hollywood distributors. Instead, he used informal promotion through churches (Catholic and Evangelicals.) The heated controversy surrounding the movie by itself was invitation. At the end of the day, the filmmaker was rewarded handsomely. The movie estimated to gross close to one billion dollar world wide.

As one said, Christ’s pain, Mel’s gain.

Cardinal Woytyla and King Hailesellasie

 

I want to give on the controversies of the movie. In this part, I will deal with one of the main criticism of the movie, that it was anti-Semitic.

Anti-Semitism: For proper wording, let us use anti-Jewish. As the Semitic groups of people under discussion are the Jewish people, there are other Semitic peoples who have nothing at stake here, should be excluded. Anti-Jewish doesn’t necessarily entail anti-Semitic. Yet the nuances of popular and academic semantics have made the issue, by and large, superfluous.

If the movie is essentially based on the accounts of the bible, specifically, gospels of (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), then it is the gospels of the Christian religion that is anti- Jewish, essentially. So the blame should fall on the Gospel authors, for honesty sake. The chronicler/ film maker of already wildly accepted fact/faith shouldn’t have been subjected to such unprecedented hostility and castigation.

Cecil B. DeMille’s Mosses, in The Ten Commandments, sailed safe despite the fact that story was not sympathetic to ancient Semitic people, Egyptian Pharaohs and Canaanites. Since it was faithful adaptation of the bible, (sort of, we don’t have that much info on Mosses bio growing in Egyptian palace along with Ramesses and Nefertiti), the story was popularly accepted, believed, interpreted and incorporated in Semitic faith-systems. The Ten Commandments were unbroken to pieces (well that is unscriptural, right? See the last chapters of Exodus :) by critics’ vitriolic words and spins.

…And The Passion of the Christ?

Mel Gibson is a Catholic. In fact, he belongs to the conservative pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic groups.

Allow me for a willful digression here.

 The fact that the arch-conservative, the Bavarian cardinal was elected as Benedict the 16th in 2005, showed, tragically, the catholic church’s reform would be postponed for the next millennia. Another European pope! Another conservative! But what would you expect if you bury with such pomposity his predecessor the polish nationalist, Cardinal Carol Woytyla another conservative who could be analogized with Hailesellassie, the last Ethiopian king (Point: both looked great in the eyes of the outside world, both disastrous to their own ‘subjects’!) Now they are hurrying to canonize John Paul-2…oh mercy!

“Roman” Catholic. I hate to use the term Roman, because I don’t why it has to be Roman when it claims to be Catholic, universal. Though it has to prove itself to be really universal when 70% of its adherents live in Third World nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia, proportionally unrepresented; its Curia, Latin, its Holy See, Italian. Roman? Huh! The City of God remains not yet understood, rather than misunderstood, text even though its Author St. Augustine, an African, is one of Christianity’s greats and even though it has been a long while, a millennium and half since the Goths and Vandals sacked the “eternal city.” 

 

The effort seems an assertion of the preeminence and the legitimacy of Simon Peter’s (The Rock, not our WWF wrestling champion, so to distinguish:) Church in history of Christianity though its history is, eponymous-ly, rocky and its record, dubious. Nostalgia seems the word here in keeping with the word ‘Roman’ as the prenom of Catholic Church. What is the difference between Roman and Axumite? Not much. 

It was a ‘glorious age’ when the Caesars and divines were two faces of one cent (hey you wouldn’t know to whom to give the cent!) A lot would have been saved if that tinge of nostalgia stretches further back before Nicaea Council (325 A.D.) The time when divine meant divine and temporal meant temporal…And when the followers of Christ were followers of Christ, not sedentary clergy men with thick robes and golden rings, with shiny, gorgeous Cross dangling in their chests. After all cross, The Cross, physically, was meant to be plain wood and well not so pretty.

Where am, I now, early 2nd century? Please pull me back before I carry myself away into the Coliseum’s lions for I am neither Gladiatorial enough to wrestle with them nor street smart enough to find a way into the Catacombs…   

Ok, from Holy world, back to Hollywood.

Gibson. How faithfully did he adapt the movie from the bible to gauge whether his movie was anti-Jewish people? The deal is this: If he faithfully followed the last chapters of Synoptic gospels and John and if the movie was still found to be anti-Jewish, then it was not the movie’s fault, rather the Gospel writers. If on the other hand, he, Gibson, deviated from the essentials of the Gospel accounts to make up his own version of Christ’s last hours to damage the history of the Jewish people, then he was not just anti- Jewish, he was also a heretic.

None of the major critics of Mel Gibson pointed out towards the unfaithful or loose adaptation of the bible. None of the Christian critics accused him of heresy.

The fact was that The Passion of the Christ sources were the gospels and some mystical (ecstatic) experiences, like that of an early 19 century Catholic nun Anne Catherine Emmerich. Granted the artistic license granted him some leverage in depicting personal characters, he fairly kept the gospel and traditional version in tact.

So what were all the sound and the fury about?

The assumed fear was the movie’s supposed plot line that Jews were responsible for Christ’s death which has been the main reason for ignorant and hypocrite Christians persecuting Jewry would be revisited this time. The movie would incite anti-Jewish sentiments, the critics repeatedly forewarned.

Zeitgeist believes the clash of civilizations/ cultures is the overriding concern of early 21centry humans that means us. Two millennium of ostracizing and persecution scarred the Jewry to the point of extending obsessive and paranoiac gestures aimed at protecting one’s faiths when even the attack is imaginary than real. The result is the counter attacks in the media and the academia end up being unwarranted, really.

The fear and the warning proved to be imaginary and inane, respectively. A year later, the movie was not found to be inciting to viewer public, though tear-jerker and confession provoker, on the contrary. Where are critics now? The sad fact of these counter attacks which meant to be self-protection went too far by assuming an attack on the tenets of Christianity itself. If Christians have the right to believe in whatever they want, and if it is in Jesus that they do, it is their right to make movies based on their beliefs.

The second point was the gore, the blood in the movie. If it was too much, then let us judge that according to the accounts of the bible. The scriptures are and should be the only yardstick here. What do they say and what do they mean to the Passion—HmaMate Christos Welde Egziabeher Zewedre EmSemayat…? How good was the movie itself in its essences as a movie and as story of Christ’s last hours?

…Was the “Man of Sorrows” (one of the expressions I love about Christ Jesus) as The Prophet Isaiah foretold (53) came off as such in the movie of Mel Gibson?  Did Gibson tap the essential message of Christ’s Cross? Did he look like “surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…?”  Why did the great Dostoyevsky shake to fits of epilepsy when he saw Hans Holbien’s rendition of the dead ‘son of God’?

Was the feel and disposition of the Jesus Christ in the movie remind us of the “the lamb slain from the foundations of the world” that “has redeemed us to God by his blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” so that he can be unanimously agreed to be “worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory…?”

                         ******************************************
THIRD-DEGREE, Par excellence

The extreme side of the story that the Passion is the sole basis of salvation might be misleading. The prolonged hours of physical suffering (flogging, hitting, “Aklil Eshok”, torturous trip to Golgotha, crucifixion, and death), by themselves, don’t constitute the essences of redemption. The painful things that happened to Christ that Good Friday day doesn’t make him the person that suffered most in entire world history.  If we are to base on the pain and suffering of the flesh, there are many cases where ordinary persons enduring higher forms of third-degree.

 

An Eritrean “Hafash-Wudub”, who went through countless nights of extreme torture and punishment under the Dergue’s Mariam Gibi, only to be finally disposed at ‘Qushet’ might have suffered worse than Christ. A Jewish teen in Auschwitz, a kid with a terminal cancer, an Iraqi inmate in Abu-Gharib, might have suffered worse and longer than Christ. There were thousands of people, back in 1st century A.D., that have been put to death exactly the way Christ was put to. None has survived the Roman Crucifixion. From Spartacus to Christ.

No, it is neither the longevity nor the nature of the Passion that made Christ’s suffering unique. It is its…

Theological Import: Word Became Flesh 

The mystery of the Golgotha is that it made God meet the fate of the worst kinds of death, that of a condemned criminal. Christ became the curse to be crucified for the sake of his ‘enemies’. The strength of Christian message was in its weakness, the Cross. The Messiah, scandalized mainstream (Jews), by proclaiming to die the worst death, and then to rise from the dead. Paul said it quite well in 1 Cor. 22, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

Gregory Wolfe, in Image journal, put it eloquently. 

Christ’s death changed the human condition forever…. because, as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” he suffered the fate of every victim everywhere…. The shocking thing about the cross of Christ is that God’s Anointed One dies on it, revealing once and for all the otherwise unimaginable truth about the depths of God’s love.

So how did Gibson capture this message? One might be tempted to say that Gibson’s movie may tilt disproportionately to the gory side, somehow, at the expense of the spiritual side. Because, Christianity is a spiritual matter.

That said the next question effectively clears Gibson of limitations. Is spirituality measurable? Can you depict through arts, here through motion pictures? That job is left for the Holy Spirit who depicts Christ in screens of the soul of each believer.

If you can send a spiritual messages and vibes across the screen that suffices. Gibson has done that successfully. Let us see…”Arbi-Sqlet” back home…

Sobe Seqelwo LiYesus….

Eritrean Orthodox and Catholic adherents who could recite the rituals of Good Friday would discover familiarity with the details of the Passion, the movie. They might even accompany it with that haunting and heartbreaking “Ziema” devoted to Good Friday.

Our Orthodox priests/ church choir, “MieRiGietta” have been virtually singing in Ge’ez every chapter of the bible, at least David’s Psalms, since Mahliettay Yaried of 7th century. There are many memorable renditions for those in know. For me, the rendering of Good Friday tops all. Mostly taken from Psalms of 22, the poignant songs of the day set the dark mood. The artistically perfect lyrics meshed well the vocals, the moan. The day from Dawn “Zeneg’H” to dusk “ZeserK” is partitioned into major five major sections/ stanza. Each with its own sonata, bible-study, “S’bket” and the famous Kiere-el-Yson. ZenegH, Gizie Selestu, Gzie SdStu, Gizie TasEtu, and Zeserk.  The peak of the day seems to be “TasEtu”, the 9th Hour when Christ was crucified at Golgotha. The superb melody of that hour leavened with theatrical re-enactment, is not Ge’ez but Greek.

                 “Emenstit Mukeria/ MuAgya/Mudasbuta anti-Fasilyasu”

  

That piece is visceral, ethereal. It commemorates the “Feyatay Zeyeman”, the malefactor on the right hand of the cross. The Criminal-cum-disciple, knowing the divinity of Christ, moaned, “”Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)

 

In ages to come, it is up to one lapsed young “Haleqa”, to take the melodic wealth of “Ge’ez” from vicinities of monasteries to the streets of Babylon, the uncharted territory of the secular world, risking excommunication and cursing. No, no, that is more than Teddy Afro’s “Abugida”. When that happens, when the Eritrean Ray Charles comes over, Eritrean Music will see a new light. We will all taste it.   

 

Jesus: “Goyta Dma Gl’ts ILu nPetros Temeto.” Lk 22:61

The technical affluence of the movie is undeniable. The costumes, the cinematography, the musical score, collaborated so well that the first century Jerusalem was captured for visual feast.

The characters of Mel Gibson’s Passion are depicted in their prominent features as they were mentioned, albeit curtly, in the bible and tradition. The leading man, Jesus was well captured by Jim Caviezel. Well aware of his Semitic genealogy, Gibson spared us of many Hollywood portrayal of ridiculous, blond Jesus with the bluest eye. A dark-haired, black/brown eyed Jesus captured the deeply magical, deeply moving character. Either when he was at his prime giving Sermons in the Mount, or at the numerous references to the Last Supper, Jesus was excellently re-enacted.

In the scene at Gethsemane, Jesus confronted Satan. By gesture to Old Testament’s prophesy, he crushed Satan’s serpent head. By his action, he answered in affirmative to Satan’s subtle question, “Do you really believe that one man can bear the full burden of sin?”

My most favorite scene is the wordless, but exceedingly expressive one. Jesus and the sinful woman, (John 8) here as Mary Magdalene touching his feet. (The Eritrean Pentecostal singer, Biniam Kiros had a beautiful song on the story). The noble mission of salvation of sinners both from their acts, their accusers and the Law, was wonderfully, recounted in silently. You praise the magic of cinema. In another scene, Jesus, the Lord “turned and saw Peter.” I was forever picturing that moment. From now on, I will re-picture the Passion’s rendition of that.

Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) a shrewd, ruler making decisions based more on political calculations than justice and truth. He feared the rise of rebellion more than any thing else. He left us with this immortal query, “What is truth?” The high priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) is a charismatic and relentless Pharisee leader with powers of persuasion and coercion.  The Pharisees, like any status quo, feared they would lose their social and political influence. This fear was camouflaged, subtly, by accusation that Jesus made himself equal to God. Which was right. Which he didn’t deny. “…from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” Luke 22:70

The Pieta: “See Mother, I make all things new”

Mary, Mother of Jesus, (the Romanian actress, Maia Morgenstern) was depicted as a Catholic and Orthodox would have depicted her. She saw, agonizingly and yet bravely, all what happened to her son. Her maternal role, usually forgotten by Protestants and Pentecostals, and highlighted and emphasized by Catholics and Orthodox, is elevated here. In flashbacks, we saw her, playing around, with her carpenter son, probably after Joseph died. With a beautiful flashback, of a falling child Jesus as a backdrop, she was made to hug her son after his first fall carrying the Cross, 4th Station of the Cross. In a deeply touching tone, Jesus said to her, “See Mother, I make all things new”. She also was the first to taste the blood of her crucified son, in clear reference to Sacramental nature of the Cross. “He who drinks my blood…”  

The final scene in Golgotha was the Pieta, Christ beholden by his grieving mother. A scene sculpted from Bounaratti’s The Pieta.

Observation on Records of Christianity

 I marvel that whereas the ambitious dreams of myself, Caesar, and Alexander should have vanished into thin air, a Judean peasant, Jesus, should be able stretch his hands across the centuries and control the destinies of men and nations.”  – Napoleon Bonaparte (1809).

After, I watched the movie again; I was asking myself questions far beyond the movie, about the records of Christianity. I will share with the readers.

 Did Christianity live up to its original mission? This writer doesn’t think so…Made adaptable to cultures and politics of humans, Christianity, in its institutionalized form, over time, veered away from Christ. Mahatma Gandhi once said of Christians, “I like their Christ. I can’t say the same of the Christians.” G.K. Chesterton’s observation rings sadly true. “ The problem with is not so much as it was tried and left untrue as it was found difficult and therefore left untried.”

The work of the Spirit was meant to be for humans, but not for human institutions. What was meant to be beacon of joy and love was domesticated and abused. The historic mistakes of European churches marred the history of Christianity. Witch hunts, slavery of black Africans, colonialism, holocaust of aboriginals in North American and Australian continent were dark sides of human history perpetrated with the blessing or tolerance of Christian churches. The supposed hope of this fallen and condemned world was made for good or for bad just another institution of human civilization.

Catholic papacy has long history of hypocrisy, intolerance and power politics. Protestantism was a force for settler colonialism that made natives of North-American and Australians endangered species. Orthodox, though not expansive, fully merged with culture, was unable too extricate itself from it. In a religious calendar of an Orthodox, you see hermit saints, like “Abune-Aregawi”, being equally or even more famous than Jesus of Nazareth. The recent comers the Pentecostal, the feel-good and Evangelicals are in oft-committed sin of mixing religion with politics. Their hero, Rev. Billy Graham vigorously supported hunted down the “commies” of 1950s and he blessed George W. Bush as reelected yes by “God.” In a world where humans are not restrained by forces of spirit, sometimes it is hard to see what difference Christianity made to its poor and disadvantaged. 

A cynic would be discouraged until he remembers, St. Augustine’s adage: “you can not judge a philosophy by its abuse.” No matter what, hope is not to be based on fellow Christians nor on the churches, but to the one who was on the Cross. The message of the cross is that it is transparently personal to each believer. He is the only one in a position to tell about his church for it is his. The Passion of the Christ confirmed that message.

 Christ Jesus, who has gone through the vicissitudes of life, knows the hellish side of existence for it happened to him. As a being, “who is familiar with suffering”, he tells every one on the unfortunate side of history that he knows what that means. He promised a better world of eternity for his believers as he knows that one too.

 It is both the mystery and joy of Christians to know that Christ Jesus, the Divine in human, so loved us he chose to conquer this world by going through the worst experiences of man, through his Passion (Hmamat),—suffering and death.

Kbri NsMu Yikun…

ghezae_hagos@yahoo.com

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