I reacted very negatively to Mel Gibson’s infamous 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ, for a number of reasons, all of which can be summed up under the heading “Lopsided and Misleading.” It certainly more than lived up to the claim of its title, the “Passion of the Christ.” But that very emphasis, so drawn out and so graphically presented, I thought in the final analysis misrepresented the totality of Jesus and the meaning of his earthly existence. Any person who knew nothing about Jesus had to conclude from this film that the sole purpose of his life was to be a sacrificial offering for the sins of the human race. Granted, that is still a very popular interpretation, and also a major theme in official Christian teachings, but it is one which many of us no longer find believable or acceptable.
True, the movie did include brief snatches of other aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, but they are the flimsiest flashbacks, almost like footnotes, and do not belong to the substance of the characterization. It’s obvious that Mr. Gibson had a single vision he wanted to project: Jesus as divinely appointed and willing victim; Jesus as the suffering God-Man, dying for us sinners.
In the wisdom of the Church over the long years of its existence, that dash between Jesus’ birth and death has not always been ignored. The English Episcopal priest and scholar, Dr. Giles Fraser, whom I have quoted to you before, explains that the early Church during its first three centuries did not celebrate Christmas at all. Christmas was the invention of the emperor Constantine in the 4th century. He was the celebrated convert who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was under his sponsorship that the Nicene Creed was written, in which Jesus’ birth and death are mentioned emphatically – but not much about his life between those two events. It was during that period that Jesus as he was known by the original Christians was, as Dr. Fraser remarks, pushed aside and replaced with the “infinitely more accommodating religion of the baby and the cross.”
The essence of Jesus’ life and mission is his teachings and his example. In no way did he minimize or hide his real intent.
He forcefully taught that we have a personal responsibility to one another and a special obligation to help those most in need and most deprived of the necessities of life.
He challenged unjust, corrupt, self-serving government and instructed us to do the same.
He cried out against the selfish hoarding of excessive wealth.
He championed non-violence above all and urged us always to be compassionate and merciful and generous, forgiving even our enemies. That’s the turning point in Christian commitment, I strongly believe: summoning the power and the will to forgive an enemy, which means not only to withhold words and actions of hostility or revenge but also to offer what that individual may need in order to recover from personal toxicity and to become his or her fuller and better self.
The baptism of Jesus, which we are commemorating today, was no mere religious ceremony; it was a commissioning, Jesus’ call to a ministry of unselfish love, that would eventually cost him his life in an unspeakably painful way. The Spirit & water ritual would not protect him; quite the opposite, it would lead him into risk and personal danger. He would speak truth to power, and power would react with deadly vengeance. His lifestyle would attract as many enemies as friends. His baptism by the reluctant John sent him into a confused, oppressed, needy world as its bringer of peace and justice.
Our baptism links us with him and his mission. It is literally true to say that in baptism we take on a way of life, as Jesus did, which will ultimately define the time and space between our birth and our death.