Jesus, Mary, and Catholic Tradition in Passion of the Christ

This is the final piece of a series on The Passion of the Christ adapted lightly from a paper written as part of my M.Div. In the original paper it was 2 short sections but I combined them here to be a more standard post length and since the two themes are related.

Son of Mary

Unsurprisingly with Gibson’s Catholic faith, the movie has a strong role for Mary, and thus I would say that Jesus is also defined heavily in terms of being Mary’s son. While Mary is not a central part of the biblical account of the crucifixion, and even less central in most Protestant renderings, she was arguably the second most important character throughout the film. She first appears having woken up in the middle of the night, knowing that something has happened to her son.  It evidently does not take her long to figure out what that was as she is next seen at the trial, and she remains consistently appearing in each stage of the trial, torture, and execution for the rest of the movie.

Interestingly, there seems to be somewhat of a divide between the men and women in the crowd as Jesus is presented as a friend to women – something true to Scripture – in general and not just his mother.  Mary Magdalene also follows throughout the whole movie, and there are other women in the crowd who are often shown as crying while the men are either neutral – even the disciples Peter and John looked unfazed – or else cheering it on.

There are many further scenes of Mary in the film.  The two Marys wipe up the blood at the scene of the whipping when everybody else has left.  At one point, Peter refers to Mary as mother, and the biblical scene of Jesus telling John to take Mary as his mother is also shown just before Jesus’ death. As Jesus starts to carry his cross, he says not just that he is God’s Son, but also that he is the son of God’s handmaiden. In one flashback, Jesus has built a table – a very strange scene that also portrays a sort of superhuman aspect of Jesus, not just as God coming to suffer but also a fortune-teller on how we will eat meals in the future. Mary in that scene is seen as the perfect mother, taking care of him even as an adult, telling him that dinner is ready and helping him wash his hands. In another flashback farther back to Jesus as a child, he hurts himself running and Mary runs to the rescue, and the flashback is shown in parallel as Mary again runs to help Jesus as he carries his cross out of Jerusalem, causing the Roman soldier (again not being so bad) to have sympathy on her. Before Jesus’ death, Mary’s significance is demonstrated for the final time as she gives a short speech about her son.

Jesus and Catholic Tradition

There are also some interesting cases of Catholic tradition over-ruling what we know to be more likely through history. For one, Jesus carries his entire cross to Golgotha which criminals (at least normally) would not have done; they would have carried only the crossbeam. In the film, even, the other criminal is seen moving through the streets at the same time as Jesus is only carrying the crossbeam.

For another instance of tradition vs. more likely history, there is a very long and drawn-out shot when the nails are driven through Jesus’ hands, not through his wrists. I recall when the movie came out and these two critiques were mentioned, but both have been the regular way of portraying the crucifixion throughout Catholic history.

Perhaps the strongest one with a more important theological point, however, is language of the Eucharist that is projected backward. When put on trial, one of Jesus’ accusers say that Jesus taught that unless people eat his body and drink his blood, they cannot be saved, which I found very interesting as the biblical account only has Jesus saying “this is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many” (Mark 14:24) and to “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24), not that it is a requirement for salvation. The Last Supper is one of the most dramatic drawn-out flashbacks, as not only is the Eucharist introduced but a lot of other teachings are packaged around it, indicating the centrality of the meal within Gibson’s own tradition and his wish to reaffirm it.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Andrew Mugford

    With regards to the discussion of the Eucharist in the last paragraph of your article, they were probably drawing on John 6:51-56:

    51 I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”

    52 Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.

    • Good point. When I wrote the paper I checked the explicitly Eucharistic texts but it is easy to see how this could be paired up with them, especially if you already hold to that understanding of the Eucharist. I’ll leave it unedited above because I think it does still show the Catholic (and others who see it as a sacrament in the strictest sense) bias.

      • Andrew Mugford

        Oh no, I wasn’t suggesting you change it, simply to say that that passage has been understood as explicitly Eucharistic for much of Church history. Interestingly though, not for Luther who didn’t think it tied in well with his view of trans-substantion.