`Passion' stimulates awareness about Easter

Christians say film offers faithful a new perspective

April 09, 2004|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

The Rev. David Carter-Rimbach, With Easter approaching, the world's Christians are focused on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a topic more popular than ever because of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

Despite criticisms that The Passion is anti-Semitic and too violent, the film has not turned away local moviegoers with its graphic depiction of Christ's final hours on earth. Instead, many say, it has strengthened their faith and curiosity about religion. These Christians say they are approaching Holy Week with a new perspective this year.

"Initially for me, it was a version I was not going to see, because having known about the story year after year after year, I didn't have to see someone else's portrayal," said the Rev. Ostein Truitt, assistant pastor at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, who said she weaved the movie into her Palm Sunday sermon. "I didn't find it as anti-anything. I saw it as an indictment against all humanity.

"I didn't keep my eyes open for all of it, but you really get a grasp of the extreme suffering that took place."

In an effort to give its congregation more information about Jewish tradition, Calvary Christian Fellowship in Ellicott City held a demonstration last weekend of a Passover Seder, including an explanation of rituals and ceremonial foods.

"All of a sudden, there is so much conversation and debate about `Was the movie anti-Semitic?,' and `Why would Jews think it was, and why would Christians think it was?' " said Cameron Sexton, wife of Calvary's pastor, the Rev. Dan Sexton.

"We were trying to educate our congregation on the beauty of Judaism," she said. "We wanted them to be able to hold a real conversation about how Christianity lines up with Judaism in so many ways."

Experiencing the Seder helped Sexton see ritual parallels between Judaism and Christianity.

"I had no idea how relevant [Passover] was to me as a Christian believer," Sexton said.

Plays depicting Christ's resurrection, believed to be the first form of the modern drama, have been performed since the Middle Ages. But people wanted to see his whole life, specifically his "passion," which led to a series of plays depicting his suffering.

Bill Mundie, drama director at Bethel Baptist Church in Ellicott City, said his church did not adapt its annual play in response to Gibson's film. Its musical performance of Bow the Knee has always been as realistic as the venue will allow, including fake blood and sound effects mimicking the hammering of nails.

But Gibson's film has grabbed people's attention and garnered more interest in smaller productions such as Bethel's, Mundie said.

"I think that it opened the door for smaller church plays to more attendance," he said. "It opened hearts and made people anxious to view more."

While the Rev. David Carter-Rimbach of Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church in Clarksville considers Gibson's movie too violent and an irresponsible portrayal of Jews, he also sees a positive. The movie has made it "OK to talk about Jesus again. And that's great," he said.

"It has stimulated a lot of discussion, and enabled people to talk with me more about their faith and about Jesus," Carter-Rimbach said. "You start talking about the film, and after a while the film doesn't matter, which is the really the point -- What does this man mean to you and me?"

St. John's Truitt acknowledged that The Passion probably has not drawn more people to church but has strengthened the beliefs of the faithful.

"It seems to have had a great impact on a lot of Christians, and I think [in] a positive way," she said. "I'd imagine people who are going to see it are people who are already actively going to church."

And while Easter egg hunts and joyful celebrations will continue, Carter-Rimbach said people are more aware of the true meaning of the holiday this year.

"The graphic depiction has made folks more somber, more serious," he said.

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