Anyone who has regularly attended a church or read a newspaper in the last three years knows that Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, has had a profound effect on how some Christians think about their faith. Fears that Brown’s blockbuster novel and, now, film opening May 19 will lead Christians away from orthodoxy are not unfounded—even as they occasionally have been hysterical.
In 2003, the same year that The Da Vinci Code was published, actor and director Mel Gibson shocked his cinematic peers by self-financing a feature film about the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. The Passion of the Christ, was intended by Gibson to be a direct experience of the tumultuous events, and so he had the characters speak only in Hebrew and Aramaic. He created a perception that his vision of the fateful last week of Jesus was entirely accurate.
Both Brown and Gibson have brought a renewed interest to the life of the Virgin Mary. She has been on the cover of several news magazines in the last several months. She is of popular interest today. As one who makes his living in religion, I’m grateful. But also obligated to keep setting the record straight.
The Mother of Jesus was thought by many viewers and critics of Gibson’s Passion to have stolen the show. Her character—as written in the screenplay—was inspired by mystical commentaries written in the early 19th century that expanded Mary’s role from what little is known from the four Gospels. The visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich (d. 1824) were recorded in various books including The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. These were first written in German and then translated into many languages.
The narrative that Emmerich creates is completely medieval in its vision of evil pervading everyday life, and its notions of how evil may be easily diagnosed in human behavior. Her recorded visions read like the narratives of an anti-Semitic novelist. Emmerich had the mind of a film director in how she “saw” the events of the Passion play themselves out in fine and dramatic detail, making Gibson’s job an easy one. Emmerich “watches” the Virgin as she, in turn, watches her son experience all of the humiliation and pain of the Passion and the Crucifixion. Mary follows him, as mother and as disciple, resolutely joining him in his suffering. Such images will be familiar to anyone who saw Gibson’s Passion. Mary was always there, in the abundant shadows.
Emmerich claims to have seen many things, some clearly and some not so much, but all in visions as if she is watching a story unfold. She makes many connections between the events of the last days of Jesus and the characters and events of the Hebrew Bible. Some of these connections come across as completely preposterous. She sees, for instance, that the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper was previously owned by Abraham and also by Noah: It had, in fact, “been preserved in Noah’s Ark,” she opines at one point.
But the relationship between mother and son is deep and intimate in Emmerich’s visions, and movingly so, just as in Gibson’s film. When Jesus was going up to Jerusalem for Passover he “announced to his Blessed Mother what was going to take place, she besought him, in the most touching terms, to let her die with him. But he exhorted her to show more calmness in her sorrow than the other women.... She did not weep much, but...there was something almost awful in her look of deep recollection.” Many of the reviews of The Passion of the Christ, even those that were critical of its excess violence and perpetuating of anti-Semitic attitudes, recommended the poignant and multi-faceted portrayal of the Mother of Jesus. Gibson borrowed all of these ideas from Emmerich.
In contrast to St. Ambrose, who argued in the 5th century that Mary would never have cried for Christ during the Passion or at the foot of the Cross simply because she knew the broad sweep of God’s salvation plans, Emmerich stands in the parallel, medieval tradition that paints a different picture. While Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, set upon by all the evil in the world for which he was about to die, Emmerich recounts: “During this agony of Jesus, I saw the Blessed Virgin also overwhelmed with sorrow and anguish of soul, in the house of Mary, the mother of Mark. She was with Magdalene and Mary in the garden belonging to the house....”
The parallel story line of the Passion of Jesus and the whereabouts and experiences of the Virgin, continues. “The Blessed Virgin was ever united to her Divine Son by interior spiritual communications.... [She] ever beheld in spirit the opprobrious treatment which her dear Son was receiving.” The all-knowing Mary is also the all-suffering mother.
Mary becomes the first person to practice the Stations of the Cross—a Christian’s exemplar in replicating the sorrow and pain of Christ as a path to deeper understanding of the release from sin. “When Jesus was taken before Herod, John led the Blessed Virgin and Magdalene over the parts which had been sanctified by his footsteps.... [T]hey stopped and contemplated each spot where he had fallen, or where he had suffered particularly.... The Blessed Virgin knelt down frequently and kissed the ground where her Son had fallen.... [T]hus were the Mysteries of the Passion of Jesus first honored, even before that Passion was accomplished.”
The picture painted of the role of Mary during the Passion is definitely profound. Mary’s spiritual experience becomes the archetype for we who follow her. She is portrayed clearly as the first of the Apostles. Foreshadowing symbolism and subtle connections are everywhere in Emmerich’s narrative. “When Jesus fell down at the foot of the pillar, after the flagellation, I saw Claudia Procles, the wife of Pilate, send some large pieces of linen to the Mother of God. I know not whether she thought that Jesus would be set free, and that his Mother would then require linen to dress his wounds, or whether this compassionate lady was aware of the use which would be made of her present.” Again, this scene is portrayed poignantly in Gibson’s film and will, for many Christians, remain a part of what they envision to be the “real” story of these events.
Movies often feel more real than everyday life. Novels, too. Undoubtedly, the Ron Howard-directed The Da Vinci Code will have that effect on many who view it, as well. The character of Robert Langdon—the investigative Harvard professor—already seems real to millions of readers. Now, Tom Hanks brings him to life on screen.
The biblical woman who really steals the show in The Da Vinci Code is Mary Magdalene, presumed to be the wife of Jesus after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. But the Virgin Mary is there, too, and we are presented with many doubts about how she has been portrayed over two millennia. “The vestiges of pagan religion in Christian symbology are undeniable,” Langdon explains (chapter 55). “Pictograms of Isis nursing her miraculously conceived son Horus became the blueprint for our modern images of the Virgin Mary nursing Baby Jesus.” So, perhaps Jesus was not miraculously conceived? Perhaps every icon of Mary holding or nursing the Child was simply an image from pagan religion with the characters switched out? Robert Langdon is a Harvard professor. Surely he knows what he is talking about.
The effect of Mel Gibson’s Passion was to expand what we think we know about Mary, while the effect of The Da Vinci Code is to reduce it. The one constructs while the other deconstructs. Both works offer exciting and important opportunities for all of us—professionally involved in religion, or not—to engage with and understand better the role of women in 1st century Christianity. And perhaps next, we will create opportunities to look together at what the original Gospels do actually say about Mary.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers