“What are you doing for Lent?” I’ve heard it in community, in meetings and at gatherings of Young Adult Catholics in the past weeks. Invariably, the answer is something like, “I’m not eating sweets; not watching so much TV; not drinking beer on weeknights, etc.” Me? I’m not eating sugar or it’s substitutes. But, I digress; the question was “What are you DOING for Lent?” not what are you NOT doing for Lent.

Among other more spiritual things, this Lent I felt challenged and invited to do two things I wouldn’t have chosen myself, but which seemed necessary given my ministry, generation and “miss-a-phobic” tendencies. I went to see the movie, The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson and I read the novel, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Jesus, one way or another, is the hero of each of these works.

I read Brown’s book primarily because many young adults were reading it. Several had asked me if it was “true.” I had recently finished reading Tobias Wolfe’s Old School and was looking forward to another good novel. Alas, that’s not what Brown’s book offered. I found the writing simple, tedious and predictable. Brown claims inclusion of scholarly research and objectivity in the novel, but the anti-Catholic, anti-Christian tone of the novel caught me by surprise. Friends of mine read it and enjoyed it for the novel it was: I had to keep reminding myself “this is fiction,” in order not to be offended. This was, I think, a good exercise. Not only for my reading of this book, but also for the viewing of the movie. If you are a Christian, it’s worth it to see the movie for a variety of reasons. The movie is an opportunity to engage with others about the events and meaning of Christ’s last hours on Earth in his human form. It also offers, should you choose to engage in it, conversation with family, friends and others who are not Christian about your own faith and theirs too.

What struck me most powerfully about the movie related to its violence. Not that there was too much of it or that it was too graphic, but that violence like this is still a part of our world. While Gibson’s unrelenting violent depiction may be accurate (and we can’t know for sure,) it certainly is effective in helping one imagine the scourging and death of Jesus. And the point of the depiction, Gibson says, is to help us avoid more violence. Asked by Reader’s Digest the headline he’d like to see the day after his movie’s release, the director responded, “War Ends.”

As the movie indicates, we are culpable for the murder of Jesus. Most Christians acknowledge this. What the Passion of Jesus really offers is a glimpse into our culpability for all murders: that each victim of murder is as innocent as Jesus was. Did Jesus deserve to have his life ended so violently? Does anyone? If Jesus’ death showed anything (and it showed plenty,) it showed most clearly how humans who sacrifice other humans for the sake of their own or the community’s welfare are certainly misguided. “Better that one should die for the many?”

Each time we put the death penalty into play; kill an innocent accidentally, or God forbid, on purpose; each time we scapegoat one villain or another, even in our daily lives – those who disagree with us, those who are different, those who live differently, those painful to be around or just plain annoying – each of these times we are re-enacting the sacrifice of Christ. While perhaps technically guilty, the victims are still innocent, still children of the same God, still children.

As I said, I wouldn’t have seen the movie or read the book except for Lent. While I didn’t really like either of them, I am, now, glad to have absorbed them. One because it was a reminder of God’s love and challenge to us as humans and one because it most certainly wasn’t. What I appreciate most, however, is the conversations I’ve been able to have with others — Catholics, Protestant Christians and Jews — about the nature and meaning of the life of Jesus Christ and the movement of God in our lives. Good conversation for Lent and, ultimately, the conversation worth having.

Good Grounds column for the San Francisco Catholic Newspaper
April 2, 2004