There is a great debate going on about Mel Gibson's film The Passion. I have not seen it, and I'm not sure I want to, for two reasons. The first is that scenes of intense brutality are more tellingly conveyed on the stage by a certain reserve, by suggestion rather than direct depiction, which may pander to our lowest instincts, like going to watch a public execution.
The second is whether or not the film is anti-Semitic. It is certainly felt to be so by many Jewish and other commentators. I do not want to risk giving such critics grounds for thinking any Christian might be party to promoting a renewal of the shameful prejudices that led to the Holocaust, that hideous, all too recent part of our history.
Not that it is sensible to express an opinion of the film's worth without seeing it, and I do not propose to do so. But on this Palm Sunday there is no escaping a reading of the New Testament accounts.
Twice in the Catholic liturgy of Holy Week we hear it read: on Palm Sunday according to one or other of the first three Gospels; on Good Friday according to John (none of them, be it noted, dwell on the gory details). We wait till Easter Sunday to hear the vindication of so much suffering, the glorious Resurrection of the Lord.
On Palm Sunday in this year's cycle of readings, we have the Passion according to Luke. It is worth noticing his particular approach. Though his Gospel and Matthew's and Mark's run closely parallel and evidently draw on mostly the same sources, there are significant differences.
All the Gospel writers and the earliest Christians felt that the ignoble ending of Christ's life, his disgrace and the common death of a criminal, was a scandal. How could he be the promised Messiah, the one to whom all Israel's hopes were pinned? They had thought of a Messiah who would come with pomp and power to inaugurate his kingdom on earth. That Jesus came to such an end showed him to be a blasphemer and impostor!
His followers had to read over again the texts from the Jewish Scriptures and discover, as the disciples did on the road to Emmaus (Luke again), that he was the Suffering Servant who would bear the sins of many. The Scriptures had in fact foreshadowed this in passages till then scarcely perceived.
But Luke, along with these passages, wanted also to depict Jesus as the classical 'wise man' whose self-control, freedom from fear and courage was a model to his followers, and as a righteous man, innocent of any crime, generous to his persecutors. This desire marks out certain characteristic touches to Luke's account.
Three times he has Pilate saying he found no crime in Jesus (though John also records this). Luke is particularly intent upon exonerating the generality of the Jewish people from blame, laying it on their chief priests and rulers. As for the common people, as Jesus went to be crucified, the women lament him and a great crowd follow him; and though they had come to see a spectacle they turn away 'beating their breasts'.
Of all the evangelists, Luke alone tells us of Jesus' generosity, that when Peter strikes the high priest's servant, he heals the ear. Luke alone records his words of comfort to the women of Jerusalem:
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
Luke alone records his offer to the good thief of a place in paradise; and Luke alone gives us his last words on the Cross -
Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit
- a cry which shows him not powerless but the righteous man willingly accepting his death.
Perhaps too we should recall Luke's characteristic emphasis on prayer. Twice in the garden of Gethsemane he bids his disciples pray, and in his own prayer was comforted (Luke alone tells us this) by a ministering angel.
These are only some of the salient features of Luke's account of the Passion. It might be useful to keep them in mind when you watch Mel Gibson's version. Perhaps after all I will watch it. I don't know.