By Edmund Kuryla
After attending graduate school, I joined the US Army. While in the Army, stationed in Germany, a good friend of mine came to visit me. He was one of those people who could do anything. He was a brilliant student in our graduate program and a true person of learning. He currently teaches and does research as an Art History Professor at an Ivy League school in the Northeast. His visit to Germany was inspiring for me because I never expected him to want to hang out with me on a prolonged excursion through Europe, driving in my beat-up Opel Kadett. I mean what were we going to talk about for so many hours?
My friend’s humility really shined during our week-long sojourn. We travelled through Southern Germany, parts of France, then Belgium and then Munich was the last stop. We drove a lot and talked the whole time. I recall looking for Hegel’s apartment in Heidelberg; Going to Aix La Chapelle to see Charlemagne’s lair and the incredible historical treasury there where my friend talked for hours about the smallest historical pieces. It was brilliant.
But the thing I remember the most was our conversation toward the end of our trip while driving from Belgium to Munich. My friend was not particularly religious. In graduate school we had many conversations about religion, especially about the Catholic church. He knew I professed to be a Catholic Christian and that I attended daily Mass and that I believed fully in all of the Church’s teachings. We talked a lot about the virtues, the difference between East and West, the Divine Counsels, and even Holy Orders.
He opened up to me on this trip and said “Ed, I believe everything the Catholic Church teaches – it’s the only church that makes sense. It’s coherent, I believe firmly it is True.” I am paraphrasing to some extent, but this pronouncement was somewhat shocking for me to hear.
Then he asked me what I thought about the film by Mel Gibson ‘The Passion of the Christ’. I thought this an odd addition to such a profound discussion. Most Christians, especially Catholics know about this film. I have watched it a few times since it came out many years ago. My friend said he didn’t like it. He proceeded to tell me that it was too brutal, too bloody. I listened closely. I have never heard anyone say, on the one hand by way of a sort of conversion experience, that the Catholic Church is right and true; and yet, on the other hand, admit that they disliked a film like “The Passion of the Christ”, after all this is Christ’s Passion. I pondered this for a moment.
I knew that my friend knew the history and that being a Christian isn’t all roses and daffodils. I responded to him by saying that it’s true that there is not too much in terms of Church teaching in this film. Jesus isn’t giving the sermon on the mount, and he isn’t remonstrating with his Disciples or with the Pharisees or Saduccees for that matter. There isn’t anything truly telling of a rational nature that can be processed in a real way before we experience the eventual slaughter to come. Gibson, instead, tries to get more in touch with this more visceral side of affairs; less rational. Jesus doesn’t say much in the film. Instead, we the onlookers, see his pain and suffering and are drawn into it whether we like it or not.
I don’t want to get into a critique of Mel Gibson’s film. What baffles me is how to make ‘sense’ of the brutality. For without the rational part – i.e., the teachings themselves, all this pain and suffering on the part of Christ would mean very little. My friend was being extremely sincere and truly insightful. To this very day I still think about his position. When we remember the Passion of the Christ, we aren’t simply responding or reacting to something gruesome; we are contemplating it truly and beginning to enter into this Mystery.
So what does the most visceral experience – that of an actual crucifixion – and in particular, Jesus’ being literally nailed to a cross, tell us? The soldiers who did this sort of thing were incredibly battle-hardened, the type of soldier you don’t see in our modern era. Perhaps many of these soldiers relished this outright bloodshed. Did these battle-hardened warriors have a glimpse of what was happening? A glimpse of something stronger than death, something they had never experienced before. Those soldiers were witnessing God being slain at their very hands. This is something hard even to conceive. But God willed it and he wants us to remember and meditate on this incredibly evil murder yet salvific outpouring.
What does this Station tell us? Blood is revealing. Blood itself is life, it’s the thing that keeps us alive. As a soldier who has administered first aid, I know that if an artery gets hit, the wounded has about 40 seconds before dying. That’s how fast you lose blood. This isn’t what happened to Christ. Instead, the process was more painstaking. Even the thought of nails going into your hands and feet is excruciating. But the blood loss from these wounds would have kept Jesus alive in prolonged agony. I would gather blood loss after being scourged would have been greater.
It’s the notion of complete self-giving that jumps out at me when meditating on this visceral animal-like vivisection. The flip side of murder would be, say, the union of two people in marriage. Love, caring, support…Love in this context entails a willingness to experience pain at the behest of the beloved. This isn’t necessarily where feelings come into play. But somehow, someway, this makes us truly happy. It takes God to tell us about ourselves – to reveal Himself to us in this way, for us to come to terms with this notion of happiness. This is certainly not something our modern culture, enamored with progress, wealth and perfectionism, would ever want to indulge.
But it’s more than this – it’s more than just Jesus wanting us to simply remember this experience. He had to ‘know’ that we must follow His example; that we too should be willing to experience suffering for other people – not just the people we find it easy to love. This is perhaps the crux of the Gospel, Jesus is laying down himself; or better, giving himself to US as the beloved.
Time ceases, centuries collapse. The Greek term I have come to love using for this ‘reality’ is anamnesis – a deeper sort of remembering. It’s a God-like remembering about who we really are, and about who made us, and who wants us to be with him eternally. The Jews at the Passover feast viewed time in this way, liturgically, sacramentally. It isn’t simply the past. This is as visceral as it gets though, where is the rational part?
When I think of the nails – I think of this ultimate self-giving and of Christ’s Body and Blood that He gives to us through his Church. Christ intended to give us nothing less than himself, his ‘very’ self. The problem is that there is a certain rational component to all of this that escapes me. I simply can’t make sense of it, because this kind of love is a sort of madness – as Plato declares in his Phaedrus, his seminal dialogue on Love. Remember in the dialogue, Socrates, in order to talk of love, must leave the city, he has to go to a deserted place.
There is something completely unique about love – a place where it must touch me and me alone, but it’s more than simply a feeling – it’s at the core of my being, it’s at the core of my existence, of who I really am…it is the Triune God trying to communicate and love me; it is a Person who created me, loved me into existence, continues to love me in existence. The only person out there who really and truly desires my true happiness, eternally. And the only way I ‘know’ this is by that outpouring. So the nails, as visceral as they may seem as part of the Crucifixion, tell me a lot more about more myself than any words. I wish I could have said this to my friend while we drove to Munich. But he made me think and thus helped me to enter more profoundly into this Mystery.