As Lent ends and the Easter season begins today with Christians celebrating Jesus’ Resurrection, TV has once again presented its share of documentaries and films about Jesus’ Passion.
PBS’ “Last Days of Jesus” offers a detailed consideration of what it meant to die by crucifixion. I now no longer watch such scenes, just as I no longer watch horror movies. “Those of us who have more yesterdays than tomorrows,” as President Bill Clinton put it at the Democratic National Convention this past summer, prefer to dwell on happier circumstances. Not that we eschew suffering. Indeed, the surest way to prolong suffering is the refusal to endure it. It’s just that we no longer feel the need to go out of our way to create or endure needless suffering.
But as scientific and historical research sheds new light on what was done to Jesus’ body, I’m reminded that Christianity built its success on the centrality of that body’s Resurrection – and not only Resurrection but restoration to its pristine beauty and glory.
It is fashionable nowadays to present Jesus as a rough-hewn Mediterranean carpenter. Such is our thirst for authenticity, and we get the Jesus for our times. But since the Renaissance and its rediscovery of classical sculpture, Jesus has often been depicted as a classical male beauty. Surely, Michelangelo’s “Risen Christ” – particularly in its first version, finished by a later artist – is the equal of the Apollo Belvedere, which is, incidentally, in the Vatican Museums.
But even from the beginning of Christianity, the emphasis was not on the crucified Christ. That would’ve been a little too close for comfort for the early Christians, who were always a nod, a look or a whisper away from martyrdom. No, if you look at the earliest images of Jesus, he is depicted as the comforting, protective Good Shepherd – Jesus as Orpheus. And this makes sense, because the culture of the Roman Empire, along with its lingua franca, was Greek, thanks to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire.
Then, too, St. Paul, who is now credited with founding the Christian Church, had the idea of expanding Jesus’ message to the Gentiles. He perceived, rightly as it turned out, that Jesus’ followers could be so much more than a mere Jewish sect.
In preaching to the Gentiles, Paul traveled extensively throughout Asia Minor and Greece before meeting his fate in Rome. (Last summer when I visited Greece, I had the privilege of seeing the ruins of the small stone cell in which he was imprisoned in Philippi.) So from its earliest history, Christianity understood that by coopting Greco-Roman culture, including its visual aspects and rapture in the human form, it could not only survive but thrive. The greatest story ever told? It’s also the greatest PR campaign ever waged.
Over the centuries, there have been exceptions to the Greco-Roman ideal. The plague-ridden Middle Ages – which had lost touch with the classical past – emphasized the tortured body of Jesus on the cross. Even in the Renaissance, Andrea Mantegna would create what I consider the greatest work on Jesus – “Dead Christ” – whose foreshortened perspective underscores its poignance. You look at it and think, This is what it means to be dead.
But dead is not the end in Christianity. And it’s never the end in adolescent America and ageless Hollywood, where those who suffer do so beautifully. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” – much criticized for its almost sadomasochistic depiction of Jesus’ Passion, among other things – nonetheless presents him in the form of the beautiful Jim Caviezel, who rises nude (modestly) in the film’s final scene.
The rising of that body is the essence of Christianity. Without it, the religion is just a nice story. And that rising is what separates Christianity from the other Abrahamic faiths – Judaism and Islam – in which you cannot image the deity, and the art is often abstract and decorative.
Christian art, on the other hand, remains figural, profoundly so, and the image of Jesus on the cross, suffering beautifully, the central image of Western civilization. By imaging God – along with his saints and angels – Christianity created a highly personal, individual religion.
As the Easter season progresses, Christians will read Gospel passages in which the risen Jesus appears to his disciples not as an apparition but as a flesh-and-blood man who talks with them on the road, asks them for something to eat and invites the doubting Thomas to touch his wounds.
By offering Jesus’ Resurrection, the Church offers believers the promise of their own as well.