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Interview With a Carmelite Theologian

ROME, MAY 6, 2004 (Zenit) - The relation between the passion of Christ and the Eucharist also contains a reference to the Eucharistic dimension of Mary, says a theologian and Vatican consultor.

To understand better the more important aspects of the film "The Passion of the Christ," Discalced Carmelite Father Jesús Castellano Cervera, the president of the Theological Faculty Teresianum who is a specialist in Marian studies and consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As of Monday, the movie had taken in $579 million in receipts worldwide.

Q: "The Passion of the Christ" represents the Eucharist, one of the central mysteries of Christianity. It does so at the culminating moment of Jesus' sacrifice with a flashback to the ceremony of the bread and wine. What is your assessment of this cinematographic representation of the Eucharist?

Father Castellano Cervera: I consider this contribution very opportune. The synoptic Gospels and Paul tell us about the supper before the Passion, as we know, and in it the institution of the Eucharist, while John, who does not give an account of the Eucharistic institution, gives the whole supper a Eucharistic meaning, from the washing of the feet, to the priestly prayer.

The supper forms part of the passion of Christ. In the giving of his body, which must be crucified, and his blood, which must be poured out for the remission of sins, Jesus instituted the memorial of his passion and redeeming death, and carried out a prophetic action, showing awareness of what was about to occur in the last part of his life.

In the film, this flashback unites the passion with what Jesus accomplished in the supper. On one hand it shows that, all that Christ had anticipated is realized in the passion. The supper looks toward the cross.

And at the same time it reminds us that from that historical event, which happened once and for all on the cross, the Eucharistic celebration -- "Do this in memory of me" -- is a "representation," in the striking sense of a "sacramental presence."

But the call to the supper and to the institution of the Eucharist at the moment of the death on the cross confers great realism both to Jesus' words in the Last Supper -- when he anticipates already sacramentally his sacrifice and his offering -- as well as the realism of the Eucharistic sacrifice as total gift, painful and at the same time full of love, obedient to the Father and a sacrificial donation to us.

There is no doubt: The realism of the Passion highlights the "price" of the gift of the Eucharistic sacrifice, also saying with the Council of Trent that in the Eucharist are present "the victory and the triumph of his death."

Q: A priest acknowledged that Gibson's film has enabled him to understand more profoundly the sacrament of the Eucharist, in regard to the meaning of the sacrifice and of the blood poured out to wash away the sins of men. What is your opinion?

Father Castellano Cervera: I think that's right. There is always the danger of trivializing the Eucharist when it is not regarded with the love with which Christ instituted it for us, when it is not related to the sacrifice of his death, and when it is not celebrated as a memorial of the love of Christ for his Church and for the whole of humanity.

The priest who acts in the person of Christ cannot live the celebration without seeking to identify himself with Christ's feelings, as the words of the Missal also indicate.

A correct way to celebrate Mass, to bless the Father, to pray to the Spirit, to offer the sacrifice of Christ and to offer oneself and the Church, together with the holy and immaculate Victim, is to be able to create also in the assembly a sense of the mystery, and to enfold it in the living offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice, in communion with Christ who offered himself and continues to offer himself for us.

Q: Controversies aside, the critics share the view that no other film has ever represented in such a precise way the figure of Mary. The Mother of Jesus lives the tragedy and pain of the passion, even though she knows that the plan of salvation is being accomplished. What would you like to say in regard to this interpretation?

Father Castellano Cervera: The observation is correct. The historical presence of Mary at the foot of the cross, according to John's Gospel, is the key to understand that hers was a constant, intense and shared closeness to the Son in his hour, in the hour of the Son and her hour, from the supper to the cross.

Mary was not there by chance, but because she had followed her Son's steps, as faithful disciple and Mother. The film is absolutely correct in showing her in different moments of the itinerary of the Passion.

She was not a Mother who drew back before her Son's condemnation. She was totally on the side of Jesus. But her human presence, letting herself be seen by Jesus, as the film shows, has a message.

Mary wanted her Son to know of her participation, of her awareness of living in profound communion with him, of what he probably revealed so many times to the Mother, more or less explicitly: his passion, death and resurrection.

It is a participatory presence of communion, of compassion, of maternal association, in the realism of being near, of being seen, of presenting herself without fear as the Mother of that condemned Son.

According to John, all that happened at the foot of the cross was the real expression of what happened on the way of the cross. Mary accompanied her Son in his agony. And she waited for his resurrection until the third day.

Q: One of the most striking scenes of the film is the moment when, at the foot of the cross, Mary says to Jesus: "Body of my body, blood of my blood." And in these words is hidden the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God. What would you like to say in this respect?

Father Castellano Cervera: Not only is it a reference to the mystery of the Incarnation of which Mary is a witness from the beginning to the end, from the Conception to the Ascension.

In the tragedy of the Passion, Mary indicates that that flesh that suffers and that blood that is poured out in the flagellation, and all through Calvary and on the cross, is flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood.

Deep down it affirms that there is a "compassion" of the Mother, that she feels in her flesh and in her blood all that her Son suffers, as if each pain was lived and suffered by her, with exquisite maternal sensitivity. She knew it, she had heard it from Simeon as a prophecy. But now she was living it with a realism that is perhaps unimaginable.

Also in the relation flesh/blood of the Passion and of the Eucharist, in the film itself, there is a reference to the Eucharistic dimension of Mary, "Eucharistic woman." The phrase is Augustine's -- "Caro Christi, Caro Mariae" [the flesh of Christ is the flesh of Mary] -- referring in the first instance to the Incarnation and, as a consequence, to the Eucharist.

Q: There are those who have described the film as anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, or too violent. How do you assess Gibson's film?

Father Castellano Cervera: It cannot be accused of anti-Semitism. Those who play a disgraceful role in the film are the Romans, especially the soldiers, terrible and merciless executioners.

On the whole, I liked the film. I think the version of the scourging was excessive and, consequently, of the suffering implied in such carnage on the way to Calvary, and some extremes of the crucifixion. There is the risk of not making such atrocious suffering credible.

I think, all together, the Gospels are more sober in regard to the physical pains. For Luke, the suffering and anguish in Gethsemane is more intense, a spiritual pain, which also affects the body that sweats blood.

So much physical pain runs the risk of clouding the "sentiments" of Jesus Christ, those of his heart, which are of obedience full of love of the Father and of love for humanity to the giving of his life. In the Letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about these "sentiments," which give meaning to Christ's external suffering.

In "The Passion," I miss an emphasis on the priestly prayer of Jesus, a real Eucharistic offering by Christ of his passion and death for the unity of all. I don't find the translation adequate, in appropriate language, of the great existential suffering expressed in the "piercing" words, as described by H. Urs von Balthasar: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

There should be more on the Resurrection. It is the Father's answer to Jesus and to us of the enigma of the passion. The salvific force of the Resurrection makes us understand the meaning of the effusion of blood and of the giving of life. Blood and water gushed forth from the heart of Christ -- blood of the redemption, but also Holy Spirit of salvation, and of the life of the Risen One communicated to us.

As the Gospel testifies, we need a Christ who returns from death with his glorious wounds to say: "Peace be with you." And to hear that he breathed on the Apostles, as John says, to communicate his vivifying Spirit. This is how "the triumph of his death" is accomplished.

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