I recently wrote here about The Chosen  – for those who don’t already know, that’s Dallas Jenkins’ TV series about the life of Jesus. I received some nice feedback on what I wrote and was asked to appear on a couple of radio programs to talk about it.
I also heard from people who take exception to the series, although I’m not sure how many of these folks have actually seen The Chosen, since they sent tweets from others who criticized the series’ portrayals of the Virgin and her Son. This reminded me of a title I’d considered for that column: “All Too Human.” And it got me to thinking again about the hypostatic union: Jesus is fully human and fully God. Existence itself, i.e., the Trinity, and the Incarnation are the primal miracles and mysteries.
I’ve been thinking about writing a novel that would explore Christ’s early years, specifically the period just prior to the start of His public ministry. I was at dinner one night with our esteemed colleagues, Gerald Murray and George Marlin. Fr. Murray asked me what I was working on. I told him about this novel, and he sort of cocked his head, as if to say: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Then he said: “How would you describe it?”
“As a mystery story: What did He know and when did He know it?”
I’ve decided to put the novel aside for a time; likely forever.
But back to The Chosen. One critic specifically referenced a scene in which Jesus paces back and forth, going over in his head the sermon He’s going to give: what will one day be known as the Sermon on the Mount. The objection, if I may extrapolate, is that Jesus wouldn’t need to rehearse or edit Himself, because, being God, He would know spontaneously what to say and, after all, had known it in the Beginning.
But much of what happens in the series – the title of which refers to the Apostles and other disciples – imagines how Jesus taught them. There are reasons why He spoke in parables and why the final revelation of His divinity awaited the Resurrection. John says (1:38) that when Jesus was called “rabbi” it meant teacher. In The Chosen, this is what we see: through the eyes of His followers, Jesus is a great teacher, surely the One expected throughout Israel’s history – all the way back to Moses. (Deuteronomy 18:15-19) That the Messiah would have the power from Yahweh to perform miracles was an idea any faithful 1st-century Jew would have accepted, but to understand that Jesus is God incarnate required another, revolutionary kind of faith. So, it makes sense that the Apostles might overhear Him rehearsing – a clue for them about how to get things right when it’s their turn to preach.
Previous cinematic depictions of Jesus have tended to present him in stillness: ethereal, solemn, and until the death of Lazarus – and, of course, His own Passion – dispassionate, You see this in portrayals by actors such as Robert Henderson Bland (1912), H.B. Warner (1927), Jeffrey Hunter (1961), Max von Sydow (1965), and Robert Powell (1977). Jim Caviezel’s 2004 performance is in another category because it’s principally about the suffering Christ.
Mel Gibson (in 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, which I watched again as I wrote this column), certainly explored the humanity of Jesus, especially in a scene in which the Greatest Carpenter Who Ever Lived builds a tall table and laughs with his blessed Mother as they pantomime sitting on tall chairs.
Jesus in Gethsemane, asking Abba to let the cup pass (with Satan tempting him again and Jesus accepting the necessity of fulfilling His mission), seems to me (and I’m wandering out of my Christological comfort zone here) to show that Christ’s suffering was not so much about His pain but ours. His burden – of pain and of the literal Cross – was and remains the sting and the weight of our sins.
More and more people insist that Hell does not exist; that a loving God would not permit it. Catholicism properly calls this heresy, not least because Jesus Himself speaks often of Hell. Perhaps (and that “perhaps” indicates that I’m hedging; hoping that what I’m writing isn’t also heretical) Jesus in Gethsemane was asking that there be a way for all to be saved. He was free of sin and resisted the Tempter, but He was fully aware of sin’s allure and persistence, which is to say aware of how easy it is for all of us to daily violate any number of Commandments. But, instead of a Free Pass, He gave us the Way.
I haven’t done this myself, but I suspect that if you asked 1000 Christians why Jesus sweated blood that night, 990 would say it was because He was afraid. Surely that’s not true. As I see it, He had in mind each and every one of us – then living and dead and all who would come after – and He took on not just our sins, but our joys and sorrows, pleasures and pains, hope and grief. To borrow Robert Heinlein’s word (from the novel Stranger in a Strange Land), Jesus “groked” us. Grok, a Martian word means, in this case, that Jesus drank us in – he “gets” us and loves us. He’s one of us and one with us, but even at the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John failed to grok Him.
I don’t understand it all – not by a longshot. Why create us at all if our failures can be so excruciatingly final? I never asked to be born. Did you? But create us He did, which is all we need to know to answer the Why of it.
Will there ever be a perfect movie Jesus? That’s easy: no. But Jonathan Roumie’s performance is the best I’ve seen (with Powell and Caviezel tied for second). But if it’s a marble Jesus you want, stick with statuary.
*Image: Holy Trinity by Hendrick van Balen the Elder, 1620s [St. James Church, Antwerp, Belgium]