Braveheart Does the Stations of the Cross

Mel Gibson’s 12-Step Program

Daryl Schmidt

From The Fourth R
Volume 17-2
March–April 2004

Film critic Roger Ebert readily recognized what no evangelical biblical scholar saw in Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.” Ebert observed: “The screenplay is inspired not so much by the Gospels as by the 14 Stations of the Cross.” Watching the movie took Ebert back to his days as an altar boy during the Friday Lenten Stations of the Cross. He recognized such distinctive features as Veronica wiping Jesus’ face (Station 6), a detail without any biblical antecedent.

Jesus at the MoviesIn the book of photographs about the making of the movie, Gibson states in the Foreword that the film “is not meant as a documentary nor does it claim to have assembled all the facts. But it does enumerate those described in relevant Holy Scripture.” And which parts of Scripture are “relevant” to “enumerate” the scenes in the Passion? Gibson claims: “Holy Scripture and accepted visions of the Passion were the only texts I could draw from to fashion a dramatic film.” The most widely identified “accepted vision” has been that of Anne Catherine Emmerich in The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, from early in the nineteenth century.

The Stations of the Cross can now be done online, but they are most familiar to Christians as the fourteen images or icons, numbered with Roman numerals, that line the sanctuary walls of churches that practice traditional forms of liturgy, especially Roman Catholic and Anglican. The images represent the “Via Dolorosa” (way of sorrows), which pilgrims to Jerusalem after the time of Constantine began to identify as sites on the route Jesus followed on the way to his crucifixion.

The general outline harmonizes the four canonical gospels, including distinctive features, such as Luke’s greater role for women. The sequence begins with the moment Jesus is condemned to die and ends when he is laid in the tomb. The tradition also preserves three “preliminary stations” that provide the necessary setting. The first scene is Gethsemane, where, in some editions of Luke, Jesus is depicted as “sweating drops of blood” (22:44). The next two scenes have Jesus led to Caiaphas and appearing before Pilate.

The “Via Dolorosa” tradition reflects the devotional practice that pilgrims brought back with them to Europe, which developed by the eighteenth century into a set sequence of fourteen stations. Five of the stations are not directly related to any gospel accounts: Jesus meets his mother, Veronica wipes his face, and three times he falls down under the weight of the cross, the last two after Simon is already helping him.

There is no fixed text for the meditations on the Stations of the Cross. The traditional practice tends to focus on the humanity of Jesus and his shared suffering with all humans. The practice does promote the notion that followers of Jesus should identify themselves with his suffering. Because it developed as a traditional practice for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Stations end at the burial of Jesus. The resurrection still lies ahead on Easter Sunday.

When the overall sequence of the three preliminary stations and the fourteen traditional stations is taken as a plot outline, the sequence presents a journey from the garden in Gethsemane to the tomb, with a number of women encountered along the way—and the continuous presence of blood.

Mel Gibson has indicated in interviews that he turned to the Stations of the Cross as his own twelve-step program for overcoming addictions. (As Gibson’s character in “The Patriot” states it theologically at the beginning of that movie: “I have long feared that my sins will return to visit me, and the cost is more than I can bear.”) Meditations on the Stations typically encourage the use of imaginative reflection, to involve one’s senses in the experience. The Stations of the Cross naturally suggest a set of icons capable of drawing the viewer into identifying with “the man of sorrows” who “takes away the sin of the world.”

It is not very subtle to observe that Mel Gibson’s film company, Icon Productions, has produced a twenty-first century cinematic icon of the Stations of the Cross. If success for such a venture is measured by getting the viewer to imagine suffering, Gibson is guilty of overkill.

As a student of religion, I am struck by this irony: It is evangelical Christianity, known for its opposition to traditional icons as part of the worship experience, which quickly became Gibson’s biggest cheerleader. What traditional still-life images on wall-mounted icons completely failed to accomplish for many Protestants, this cinematic version has more than achieved, according to the testimony of many such filmgoers.

As a scholar of religion, I am compelled to reply to the claims that are then made about this experience. Letters in the local newspaper assert: The script is “almost word for word from the Bible,” and “you can’t believe in Jesus without the blood.” The “analysis” by a religion writer was given the heading: “Film closely follows theology, Bible accounts.”

These two claims are two sides of the same coin. They reflect the amount of biblical and theological illiteracy in our culture. As one radio caller put it right after seeing the movie: “I’m eager to go home and read my Bible, I didn’t know all that was in there.” For those committed to advocating “The Fourth R,” religious literacy, this becomes a teachable moment.

The first contested issue is the relationship of Gibson’s screenplay to the gospel narratives. As one online study guide puts it: “A Passion portrayal showing only ‘what we know happened historically’ would be short, confusing, and incomplete.” This apt summary reflects both the array of differences in the four canonical narratives and their historical assessment in light of other ancient sources.

In The Acts of Jesus , the Jesus Seminar carefully considered both the conflicting details in the four accounts and assessed their historical likelihood. The best historically attested aspects of the Passion Narrative are the following:

There was a person named Jesus, who was executed by the authorities during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate (26-36 C.E.).

The disciples fled when Jesus was arrested.

The assertion that the Romans were innocent of Jesus’ death and the Jews responsible is pure Christian propaganda.

The underlying structure of the passion story was suggested by prophetic scriptures taken from the Greek Bible.

It is not just the content of the trial but the fact of a trial that lacks historical foundation.

The trial narrative was created on the basis of Psalm 2.

The particular details within the passion narratives cannot be taken as historical reports. Nonetheless, in the Seminar’s judgment, there are core events that provided the basis for the narratives. These are: the arrest, appearances before the high priest, the Council, and Pilate, the crucifixion and the death of Jesus.

The careful reader of these narratives notices how few details are actually present. At the crucial moment, the text in all four gospels says nothing more than “they crucified him.” How that looked is left to the imagination of the reader. For example, we know from other ancient sources that the victim was nailed to the cross through his wrists and ankles, not through his hands and feet. Three of the narratives, prior to this moment, have Jesus flogged (John) or scourged (Mark and Matthew), suggesting metal-tipped thongs, by the Roman soldiers, which typically accompanied crucifixion. These narratives also say that the soldiers mocked and “struck him.” Luke only has Pilate “chastise” him, which could include lashes, without the additional violence by the soldiers. Again, the writers provide no details about how any of this was carried out.

The only other violent scene in the narratives is a mention that some of the temple guards/police “struck him” after Jesus was charged with blasphemy. In the earlier scene of Jesus’ arrest, the guards/police are described having weapons, but the only violence depicted is at the moment Jesus is seized, when one of his followers draws a sword to strike the high priest’s slave and cuts off his ear. The occasion allows Jesus to denounce the use of violence.

The scenes just described indicate all the moments of violence in the gospel passion narratives. It leaves a lot to the imagination of the reader/listener — and the filmmaker. Just as today, when we read that a prisoner has been tortured, we imagine for ourselves what really happened. However much torture the passion narratives imply, the gospel of John insists that Jesus “carried his own cross” to Golgotha, which suggests a measured amount of torture. Likewise, the resurrection appearance stories only mention the nail holes, which verify crucifixion—and in John his pierced side. There is no suggestion of unrelenting brutality in the narratives themselves.

There is, however, an explicit motivation for featuring incredible torture. Gibson’s script is coherent only in light of its theological presuppositions, which he displays on screen before the action begins, in the words of Isaiah 53. By filming only the ending of the plot of the narrative gospels, his script dramatizes a particular theory of substitutionary atonement. Gibson is clear about this in interviews when he also cites these words from Isaiah 53: “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, and with his stripes we are healed.” Only in such a context is excessive brutality viewed as wholesome. Now the amount of brutal violence and the number of stripes are themselves presumed to be meritorious.

All these considerations still do not explain Mel Gibson’s script for turning the traditional Stations of the Cross into a movie. For that Gibson relied on the account of Anne Emmerich’s visions of the Passion. Most of the distinctive features that startle moviegoers are described in Emmerich’s account, including the recurring theme of Satan and the lesser demonic figures.

Emmerich devotes considerable attention to describing the opening Garden scene: “I saw the moon, which was not yet quite at the full, rising in front of the mountain.” After describing Jesus in a grotto-like space in the garden, she then imagines Jesus aware of Satan and other “frightful figures,” and she becomes aware of various apparitions, including “even children.”

Numerous peculiar scenes in the movie derive directly from Emmerich. Many moviegoers wonder about the source for such items, as described by Emmerich:

I saw our Lord fall twice before he reached the bridge, and these falls were caused entirely by the barbarous manner in which the soldiers dragged him, but when they were half over the bridge they gave full vent to their brutal inclination, and struck Jesus with such violence that they threw him off the bridge into the water, and scornfully recommended him to quench his thirst there.

A number of signature moments are provided by women. One such scene features Mrs. Pilate, named Claudia Procles, and Jesus’ mother. Claudia Procles “sent some large pieces of linen to the Mother of God” and “Mary and Madgalen approach the pillar where Jesus had been scourged” and “wiped up the sacred blood with the linen which Claudia Procles had sent.”

The scourging itself in Emmerich’s account actually surpasses Gibson’s depiction. In her vision, the first “two ruffians continued to strike our Lord with unremitting violence for a quarter of an hour and were succeeded by two others,” after he was already covered with blood. Then “two fresh executioners commenced scourging Jesus with the greatest possible fury,” using “a different kind of rod” that “tore his flesh to pieces.” Once again, “two fresh executioners took the places of the last mentioned,” now using “straps covered with hooks, which penetrated to the bone, and tore off large pieces of flesh at every blow.” In Emmerich’s vision, “the dreadful scourging…continued without intermission for three quarters of an hour.” Gibson actually spared his audience over half of that!

It’s impossible for most of us in the twenty-first century to appreciate this kind of devotional meditation from past centuries. However, Mel Gibson apparently shares that worldview. Even more remarkable is how successfully he has marketed it to such a large audience, including many not familiar with the Stations of the Cross. Rather, they resonate with the movie’s message, in the words of familiar hymns from my childhood: “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus,” “There’s Power in the Blood,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Jesus Paid It All,” and “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.”

Unlike meditating on the Stations of the Cross, when we heartily sang these hymns, we had no icons suggesting how to imagine the actual suffering of Jesus. For evangelical Protestants this message came rather from the apostle Paul—as he was popularly interpreted. Paul chose to know: “Nothing but Jesus Christ crucified” (1 Cor 2:2), which encouraged “faith in his blood” (Rom 3:25).

A better understanding of Paul has emerged today, by returning to Paul’s insistence that it is “the faith(fullness) of Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16) that matters. It is Jesus’ total trust, exemplified by being “obedient to death—even on a cross” (Phil 2:8). The cross for Paul symbolizes complete obedience, total trust in God. Paul’s theology is not reducible to “nothing but the blood of Jesus,” anymore than the narrative gospels are reducible to a passion narrative. The narrative gospels insist that Jesus’ life matters as much as his death.

Mel Gibson’s cinematic Stations of the Cross may serve as a visual meditation on the blood of Jesus for some viewers. For many others, an adequate understanding of Jesus requires appreciation of the kind of life he lived.

Copyright © 2004 Polebridge Press. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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