Cinema Paradiso

Passion Week is a popular time for Jesus movies. Unlike their cousin the "Christ-figure film," which portrays characters whose choices remind us of the gospel, Jesus movies tell Jesus' story. They offer us a particular representation and interpretation of what we know about first-century Palestine's history, Christian devotional traditions, cultural values about Jesus, and directorial imagination.

One of the interesting things about Jesus movies (quite a few have been made over the years) is that in the early days of film, Jesus' life was a favorite subject because it was full of miracles—including rising from the dead—which offered budding filmmakers the opportunity to innovate and develop special effects. How can a human actor appear to walk on water? How can that same actor appear to ascend into heaven?

Another feature of Jesus movies is the way directors use them as storytelling vehicles. Jesus at the Movies, by W. Barnes Tatum, and Savior on the Silver Screen, by Richard N. Stern, Clayton Jefford, and Guerric Debona, are two books that compare which movies use which gospel accounts.

This Eastertide, I find myself wondering why no one has made a film focusing on the story of Jesus post-crucifixion. After all, there is an entire liturgical season of 50 days dedicated to this part of his ministry on Earth. That's 10 more days than either Advent or Lent, and 50 is the number of the Jubilee, making it a number of "liberation and restitution."

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana.

April 1
The Story Made New
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14 - 23:56

A few years ago, a friend was giving us his annual cross-making-from-palm-fronds lesson during the fellowship time that follows worship. As he offered to help one of the children in the congregation fold her palm, she looked puzzled and asked what a cross was. He explained that a cross is what Jesus died on. Her 3- or 4-year old face looked up at him in horror: "You mean someone killed Baby Jesus?!?" she asked.

After all the baby hoopla of late December, it's understandable that a child would be confused that a mere three or four months later in our worship we switch from talking about "Baby" Jesus to telling the story of a 33-year-old man.

Perhaps this little girl's question has stuck with me so much because, for the past several years, I have been watching Jesus Christ Superstar during Passion Week. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Christ is a very human Jesus. I need the challenge the movie offers. I need to remember that Jesus was a human being who began life as a baby—innocent, vulnerable, and fragile just like the rest of us—and the course his life took doesn't always make sense and its meaning isn't always obvious.

When we read this week's scriptures, we have the benefit of hindsight; we know how the story goes, and we understand Lent's logic and "kairology." If you were asked to make the next Jesus movie, how would you tell the story? Would you start with the nativity and end with the resurrection? Focus on the miracles or the parables? Begin with the creation of the world and end with the second coming? Begin in the wilderness and Jesus' baptism and end with crucifixion?

The gift of Palm Sunday and Passion Week is a question: How do we (re)tell this story, making known what is important to us about Christ's lordship?

April 8
From Fear to Courage
Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18

One thing I think most Christians can agree on is that Simon Peter is a real character: He manages to deny he knows Jesus and then become an important leader in the Christian movement. Peter's speech in Acts is a beautiful proclamation, and yet I wonder: Why didn't he mention anything about how fearful he and the other disciples were as Jesus was taken into custody by temple officials? I have seen people taken into police custody at political protests, not to mention in the sensationalized video footage of television shows such as Cops. Whenever someone is arrested, it's high drama. Emotions are all over the place: confusion, anger, fear, curiosity, defiance all go rushing through one's veins, fueled by adrenaline.

Because we know the outcome of Passion Week, there is a danger that we so ritualize its events that we forget a central truth: In the resurrection, God is reaching out to us, transforming our fear into courage. Mary of Magdala symbolizes this transformation in her role as "Apostle to the Apostles," a title given to her by Augustine. The first century Roman establishment worried that graves of people like Jesus—people executed as enemies of the empire—might become pilgrimage sites for fellow conspirators, as Dorothee Söelle explains in Great Women of the Bible in Art and Literature. A similar dynamic was present during black South Africans' struggle against apartheid, when the white minority government prohibited funeral services at the graves of young activists. Unlike the male disciples, Mary is willing to risk everything to go to Jesus' tomb.

Mary's stubborn commitment to give witness to her community's mourning and grief is inspirational. As Söelle put it: "Resurrection is the sign of a power that changes life and breaks its subservience to and cooperation with death. The resurrection has need of witnesses, for it does not function here for the sake of Jesus' return to his father, but for the sake of liberation of all people from fear and submission to the powers of death."

April 15
The Challenge of the Church
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

In many ways Easter's unfolding story is about the church's birth. I like to think of Eastertime as the season of a question: Where do we go from here? Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a book whose title asks this same question, to which he added, "Chaos or community?"

Perhaps part of the reason Jesus movies don't dwell on his post-resurrection story has to do with the political nature of apostolic witness. The Jesus movement has not always known which direction to go. As a result the church's life has been just as chaotic as it has been communal; I say this having been raised on decades' worth of Anabaptist-Mennonite history with its martyr stories, schisms, and mythos of faithful remnants. This is to say nothing of the church's rather faltering witness during times of genocide, holocaust, and tragedy of all kinds.

Just as there are many ways to tell and retell Jesus' story, so too are there many ways to talk about the church. Is the church visible or invisible? Is it the gathering place for those who suffer for righteousness' sake, those who refuse to submit to human authority when it competes with God's, those who acknowledge God's saving grace through Christ Jesus?

If the question of Eastertide is "Where do we go from here?" then I think the challenge of Eastertide is to bring together both historical interpretation and the promise of renewal—recognizing that the church, for good and ill, is local, global, institutional, apostolic, and an earthen vessel.

April 22
Breakfast of Champions?
Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

The week after Christmas, my congregation celebrated communion. Instead of the traditional bite-size piece of homemade bread and shot of grape juice, the congregational elders and pastors offered us pita bread and fish—yes, that's right, fish.

Their inspiration came from this week's gospel reading, when Jesus appears to some of his followers on the beach at the Sea of Tiberius. After barbecuing some fish for breakfast, Jesus asks Simon Peter to feed his lambs. This request comes after Peter, who has so recently denied knowing Jesus, assures Jesus that his love of and commitment to his rabbi surpasses that of the others.

I see a lot of irony in this story. I don't know if I'm convinced of Peter's commitment. I have no doubt of his earnestness, but come on: Peter's a character and a people-pleaser, which means he'll say anything he thinks Jesus wants to hear, right? And if this is my response, I wonder what the others were thinking as they listened to this exchange.

As much as I think of him as a waffler, Simon Peter is also real. His authenticity comes from his need for restitution and liberation. He has to learn how to be a leader, how to cope with his weaknesses, how to follow Jesus. He has to learn how to live without fear. As he savors the fresh fish, does he understand?

April 29
The Messy Community
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Today's reading from Acts seems out of place. The passages from John and Revelation reinterpret Psalm 23, morphing Jesus into the Good Shepherd, but what does Dorcas' death have to do with sheep—exalted lambs or otherwise?

Simon Peter promised Jesus he would feed Jesus' sheep, and Dorcas is a member of the flock. The ancient analogies of Jesus as both the Good Shepherd and the exalted lamb, plus the description of church leaders as shepherds and congregations as their sheep, have become trite in our industrialized society. But sheep herding is hard work; sheep are not snuggly creatures like the ones you see printed on flannel sheets and receiving blankets.

Life among the early communities inspired by Jesus was just as messy then as it is now. Good leaders and faithful followers are not an easy combination to find or create. It's sort of like the movie Babe. The pig and the sheepdogs have very different ideas about how to work with Farmer Hoggett's flock; relationships are tested and the paradigm eventually shifts. In the end, leadership that is not invested in being right all the time and doesn't bully others perceived to be inferior strikes me as a faithful way of sharing Jesus' resurrection legacy.

So maybe the best films out there that tell Jesus' story aren't the ones focused on archeology and historical data. Maybe the best and most faithful way of telling the post-resurrection story of Easter is to begin with everyday stories—whether they be about suffering, pain, and loss or hope, justice, and peace—because that is truly where Jesus is, living everywhere in the everyday.

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