One of the more puzzling things about the Passion of the Christ is its use of language. Have you ever wondered why Mel Gibson had English speaking actors speak in two dead languages? I suppose one could chalk it up to a fascination with the Latin Mass or a desire to simply be authentic but there’s also something more significant. In language, Gibson has democratized access to his film. No group watched it from a more privileged position. All were equal in having to read subtitles and listen to a foreign tongue. And in that, Gibson has said the same of the Cross of Jesus: All humanity stands equal before it.
I love this movie! It isn’t for everyone. It’s a Danish film with subtitles. But for those of us who grew up with a Christian ascetic/holiness environment, this film is a beautiful and moving corrective. We tend to deny ourselves the fruits of God’s grace thinking that this will somehow please God more. And yet even in our stubborn refusal to receive all that he has given, He still keeps giving more and More.
One of my favorite experiences in Rome was exploring the Basilica of Saint Clement. Tami and I stumbled upon it in the few blocks between our room and the Colosseum. But as it seemed a fairly ordinary church for Rome, built around 1100, we passed by it a number of times before noticing a sign on the door inviting tourists to see what lay below. After descending a staircase some twenty feet down, we emerged amid the mosaics and fading frescoes of a fourth century church. More than the fact that it lay under the above church told us it was ancient. Rather than the renaissance realism found in the art above, the iconography here had a cartoonish quality typical of Ancient Rome. The church had clearly been in use a long time. At sometime in its history, several walls had been added by stacking ruble in the empty spaces between once decorative pillars. But centuries of debris outside eventually raised the ground level, entombing this space in subterranean silence. And yet it wasn’t the only building resting beneath the 12th century church.
We descended another set of stairs and entered the oldest building constructed on this spot, a series of twisted passageways and dimly lit rooms quite unlike the two churches above it. Here some thirty feet down, we could hear the sound of an underground stream echoing in its halls. To our left, we found the walled up archway that once opened to the street. And around the corner, the reason for the building, a room containing a large block of marble carved with a man grabbing a bull by the horns. It was an altar dedicated to the god Mithra. And on both sides was a typical Roman dining bench where the members of this cult would recline to share a meal in dedication to their god. All of this was destroyed in Rome’s Great Fire of 64AD and filled in.
Most martyrs don’t die because they want to. They’re propelled by their faith to a place from which they can find no escape. Most trusted God for a better life and would have lived on if they could. But instead, the beautiful promise which encouraged them on ends broken not just in their body but also their soul. There’s no immediate glory in that, just an emptiness, a hope left unfulfilled.
I can hear their hurt in Revelation 6. “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘Oh Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell in the earth? Then they were given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”
They address God ”Sovereign Lord, holy and true” but its partly a challenge and a lament. “This is who you said you’d be and yet you haven’t been!” In the same way, there’s pain and fear in their asking, “How long?” “We believed in you once can we believe in you now!?! We had hopes for a future, a better world than the box of bones we’re living in now. We trusted your promises! Are you going to come through? Are you going to pay out the promises which cost us our lives?”
“A little longer” is all that is said.
I’m no martyr but I identify with the hurt. I’ve been propelled on by God’s promises to a place from which it seems I can find no escape. The dreams I had are daily being broken, left unfulfilled in the passage of time. And I feel at times like Thomas A’Kempis, the author the Imitation of Christ, who awoke one day to find himself buried in his own coffin. Wait, this isn’t how it was suppose to go! And like him, I’ve clawed so fiercely at my chamber walls that my nails have broken off bloody in the boards. Am I suppose to be at peace with it? Do saints die clinging to life like this, calling God out on his unfulfilled promises? It seems so. Remember the words of Jesus, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”
“A little longer.”
I hope so.