I grew up in a post-war development neighborhood where every house was the same. In our cookie-cutter residence there was a short swath of flooring that joined four doorways which we cynically called a “hall.” In this poor excuse for a hall, sitting on a pedestal, was our family Bible. It was an Italian, Catholic, baroque behemoth, bound in red leather, awash with the most colorful artwork and photographs ever seen in a Bible and it had a smell. When you turned the pages clouds of stimuli triggered four out of five senses. It looked, felt, sounded and smelled like a holy relic. It still does.
I was convinced at the time that this effect was achieved by some legion of elves replicating the essence of “relic” in a workshop below the Vatican at the behest of Pope Paul. I figured he called them his “little paisanos.” I often conflated father figures like the Pope and Santa. It was this relic of a Bible however that piqued certain interests in me, an interest in art and an interest in the stories it told to name two.
I bring this up because the sources we have today for these stories are quite different. The splashing of stimuli across one’s senses has taken a quantum leap. When I was a kid there was one TV in the house and an antenna on the roof. This meant we all watched the same show, together, and at Easter time there was perennial selection which included the prototypical Hollywood epic. The usual lineup was The Robe with the incessantly overacting Victor Mature, The Shoes of the Fisherman which always put me to sleep, and The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner – two powerhouses.
In those grand productions there was no shortage of Aryan actors playing Middle Eastern parts, drunkenly exercising their power upon the ethnically-cast extras. This usually resulted in at least one gratuitous scene featuring a slave with a blood-curdling scream having some body part crushed under a turning stone wheel while the Roman Emperor barely flinched. Oh, the humanity. It was so predictable, it was almost lighthearted.
That is certainly not the case today.
A certain realism has flooded these Biblical stories today and not all of it is good. The good part is that there are more Middle Eastern or ethnic actors playing Middle Eastern parts and I like that for historical reasons. When we were young however we wanted our heroes to be of a certain ilk. We wanted them to not only be special but look the part as someone who was special. Whoever played Christ had to be impressive aesthetically. My brother and I both agreed at the time that the “best” Christ portrayal was in King of Kings by Jeffrey Hunter. Though we were two heterosexual boys, we recognized that was one good-looking Jew. And, that’s how you wanted your heroes – better than you.
So with the new realism, historical accuracy has become more important than aesthetics. Unfortunately, some of the dark sides have become far too real as well. I have been watching Nat Geo, the History Channel and CNN during the Easter season. This has resulted in some of the most gruesome and realistic crucifixion scenes one can imagine and I have found it very disturbing. In fact, some of the images and horrifying knowledge of Christ’s suffering on the cross, are unbearable concepts of pain. Some shows examined the actual science behind the suffering as if I need to be explained the excruciating pain behind having 10” nails driven through the thick part of my ankle bones as they become the only means by which to support my scourged, beaten body while I hung on a cross by nails through my wrists. I won’t go on. There is pain and suffering I can’t stand to further envision and I unfortunately can’t shut them off. I’m having a great deal of difficulty reconciling these thoughts with my belief that people are basically good. I won’t pass this on to you any further other than to say that we as a society are in a very bad place.
Is this what Christ really wanted us to focus on, His torture, the worse of humanity?
Are we meant to go through these thoughts over and over so that the guilt for our salvation becomes permanently embedded in our hearts? Is that what Christ would have wanted, a guilt-driven worship? I can tell you that the constant violent images has sent me into a dark place and it certainly doesn’t feel like a holiday should. Not being one who subscribes to a belief that we bear guilt for all of humanity that preceded us, are my feelings a subliminal reaction to understanding that Christ’s suffering paved the way for my salvation? I don’t know.
I can’t help but feel that society is engaging in a pornography of violence and that no one is outraged or even seems disheartened by it. Am I alone? I doubt it. I’ve tossed and turned at night and I can’t get the thoughts, images out of my head. My only solace is to focus on Christ’s teachings, his very words on the cross: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Was that just for the Romans who murdered him, or the Jewish hierarchy who betrayed him, or for all of humanity? Pilate washed his hands but I can’t get my head clear. Easter has become a much different experience than when I was a child. My only solace lies in those words on the cross, those words of forgiveness, His forgiveness.
I’m learning that this is the antidote for darkness and the remedy for guilt.
In that family Bible I mentioned earlier I recently found a card, a payment card, filled out in pencil by my mother. It starts off like this:
Jan 1960 $2.50
Feb 1960 $2.50
Mar 1960 $2.50
April 1960 $2.50
Then there is nothing for 3 months and it abruptly resumes:
Aug 1960 $12.00
The entry missing from that ledger – that was so glaringly apparent to me or anyone in my family was:
July 1960 Francis Batchelor dead at 37, Catherine widowed at 39
The payments conclude through December then there is one final entry:
Paid in full
Italian-Catholic guilt is a gluttonous dish, served heavily on a platter of sin with the life-long wearing of black, the endless clutching of rosaries, the never-ending acts of contrition. Somewhere in my mother’s mind and in her heart was the belief that her husband’s death was payment due for having the disrespect of not staying current on an account for the Holy Bible, or at least that it played some role. That is how her generation thought. That is how their minds worked. Is this a proper legacy for those who would follow Christ, an inheritance in passing of guilt from one generation to another?
What are we teaching this generation? What frailties are we passing on as we accept, without the slightest equivocation, the onslaught of violent images, the desensitization of torture and our obsession with the graphic. Where are the lessons that matter? What is the lifeline to grasp in a time of constant affronts to our spirit?
The message and solace I take from this year’s Easter and the one I wish to pass on is forgiveness, and that forgiveness is payment in full, forgiveness of not just what others have done, but also forgiveness for ourselves. Forgiveness Mom, forgiveness.