The Passion Story is not a whodidit vengeance saga, though it’s often played that way. Nor is it a mystery about how blood heals and washes and works, though it’s often interpreted that way. It’s about the human suffering of death, about the misery of the flesh when tortured, about the terror of pain and cruelty and death. Christ’s story is transfixing not because he’s the son of God or sinless or noble, but because he suffers the violent fate of the weak and sinful and vicious and criminal.
Crucifixion was widely used in the ancient world for spectacular deterrence, to punish and strike fear of resistance to authority. Only the weakest, slaves and criminals, could be crucified. You get a good sense in the movie Spartacus where Kirk Douglas the rebellious slave is crucified to quell resistance to Rome. Those who kill, torture and demean use the crucified body to demonstrate their strength. We can bruise, bloody and break you; we rule, you die. In the story we live our fears and fantasies and furies and weakness in the brutalized body.
Mel Gibson says this meditation saved his life, restored his balance. Like Christian mystics who sought the stigmata of Christ’s wounds (particularly Catherine Emmerich whose meditations directly informed Gibson’s staging), he finds healing humanity and divinity in those wounds.
Is Christ any different from the rebel leader in Braveheart who is terribly tortured, humiliated and killed, or from other action heros who suffer torture?
Yes, he isn’t a warrior, a killer in the cause of freedom or country or good. He suffers the killers who act in the cause of their good—the Jewish highpriests, the Roman rulers, the crowd, the punishing soldiers. He forgives them.
The enlightened Christian reading is that we’re all those others, the sinful ones saved by the sinless Christ. That is, we’re not the innocent one. The innocent one forgives. It’s the guilty who seek violence and vengeance. Scapegoating is revealed as an error. Christ is killed because he’s judged, convicted, punished and executed as the evil one. That brings communities together.
It comes to a theory of blood. Jewish Christians or Christian Jews saw Christ as the slain Passover lamb, whose blood saved them from the angel of death in Exodus. Normally blood from a slain animal must be poured to the ground and thereby given back to God as blood, life, belongs to God. In the Exodus story the blood is sprinkled on the doorposts and lintels of the Jews. But the revised Christian view is that the blood is shared by the community: Christ is what the community lives on. They live not only after death by his blood, but they feed on it in life. Christians at least symbolically (and literally for conservative Catholics like Gibson) eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.
What can this mean, to drink blood? Normally blood calls for blood in vengeance, as with the Greek Furies which spring from the bloody drops of Uranus’ castrated organ. Blood is answered only by blood. In Jewish practice blood is not to be drunk; it is reserved to God, poured off, do not eat the blood. The Christian Jews who made it the sign of the new covenant changed the sense of the Passover meal. Christ became the meal and the liberation. The blood became wine and communal feast. The blood boundary of death and life recycles death into life and flesh and hope.
The Passion story is about Christ’s blood crying, but not crying out for vengeance. That’s a different passion story, closer to the Greek where a castrated organ breeds—through blood—fury, hatred, and the relentless thirst for vengeance.
DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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