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The 'Passion' of Frank Griswold


News Analysis

By David W. Virtue

The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold recently went to see Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion, depicting the last twelve hours of Jesus’ earthly life.

He writes in the April issue of Episcopal Life: “Having heard so much about the film, I was quite curious to see what my own reaction would be. I wondered if I would be moved, or repelled by the violence. I also wondered if I would find myself seeing the film at variance with my own understanding of the Passion. What was clearest to me as I left the theater was how much my understanding of the Cross derives from a sense of its life-givingness rather than the extremity of Jesus’ suffering.”

As one conservative observer, tongue-in-cheek noted on reading these words, “I figured that's where it came from. The scene is Golgotha. At the foot of Christ's Cross circles Frank Griswold as a kind of art instructor, looking the Cross up and down, stroking his chin in faux thoughtfulness and saying "Hmmm," every so often. Finally he looks up at Christ and says, "Interesting approach. And I think I see where you're going with it. But don't you think you could have been a whole lot more, you know...upbeat?"

Griswold: This life-givingness is made clear in the film when the centurion who pierces Jesus’ side with a spear is bathed in the torrent of water that issues forth. The baptismal imagery at this point is unmistakable.

While this took place in the movie, it is ONLY in the movie that you will ever see such a thing. There is nothing in the text of any of the gospel writers that makes reference to such an event occurring. Nowhere.

Furthermore not a single commentator on this movie has made any reference to the fact of the water flowing from the spear wound having anything to do with baptism. The baptismal image was not, as far as we know, what Gibson intended either. So it is an incredible reach by Griswold to infer the notion of baptism from the spear going into our Savior’s side and blood and water flowing from it.
In truth baptism in the Episcopal Church has now become heavily politicized, beyond its original meaning, its intent lost long ago.

Griswold: “The image of the crucified Jesus that most draws me is very different from the one presented to us in The Passion of the Christ. It is the cross of San Damiano, most likely painted in the 12th Century by an Umbrian artist influenced by Byzantine icons of the crucified Christ. It was before this cross that Francis of Assisi prayed and from which he heard Christ address him and tell him to rebuild the church.”

The San Damiano cross is a passionless Christ, almost fey but it is eschatological, writes a Virtuosity reader. “It represents not only Byzantine influences but the theology of Western Europe before 1100. The cross was in a ruined old chapel where Francis lived and prayed before the foundation of the Order of Friars Minor.

As Griswold himself noted, “The image itself is devoid of suffering, though Jesus is clearly crucified. His arms are extended in such a way as to suggest an embrace in which he is gathering to himself all that lies before him. Beneath the arms of Christ on both sides of the Cross are panels depicting a variety of people, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene.”

And for Griswold this is central to his own mystical view of Christianity.

The idea of God’s wrath being visited upon His Son (instead of us) to atone for the sins of the world; any idea of substitutionary atonement is not on Griswold’s spiritual seismograph. Griswold hates any idea of suffering…for himself, the church, even Christ.

He likes the effete Christ of niceness, inclusivity and sexual diversity, a Pinot Grigio Christ, passionless but with a hint of fruitiness.

Griswold: “When I pray before the San Damiano cross I am put in mind of the opening words of one of the prayers for mission at the conclusion of Morning Prayer in our Prayer Book. “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” As I pray this, I know that I too am caught up in that saving embrace, as indeed is the whole of humanity.”

How embrasive of the Presiding Bishop. Christ’s “saving embrace” has effectual power only as it is embraced by those who choose to embrace it. One dying thief did, the other did not. Does Griswold want us to believe that the “whole of humanity” is saved by Christ’s action without our needing to personally embrace it? If so he has moved way beyond the exclusivity of the cross and redemption.

Griswold: “To be enfolded in Christ’s embrace is both consoling and challenging, and I am obliged to reflect on my own life and consider my own capacity to embrace others in the power of Christ’s embrace. Left to my own devices, my capacity to embrace is partial and incomplete. It is beyond my ability to embrace everyone. But, as Christ’s Spirit moves within me, I am enabled to extend my arms and welcome all that stands before me. That is, I am only able to embrace all others when I allow myself to be drawn into Christ’s embrace and then ask Christ to embrace the others through me.

Griswold uses the word ‘embrace’ eight times in the preceding paragraph. How much embracing does he have in mind? Noted the conservative wag again, “[Here] Frank gets in touch with his inner Leo Buscaglia.”

Griswold: Here I think also of Jesus’ words to his disciples: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.” The Cross, therefore, is about God’s love embodied in Jesus drawing us like a magnet out of all that is partial, incomplete, disordered and false into the reality of a transforming and deathless love which reorders all things, including our lives, and makes all things new. It is the triumphant Christ drawing the world to himself who most profoundly speaks to my heart.

For Griswold the Cross is an embarrassment, what he wants is the “triumphant Christ”, but he fails to understand that before He wears the crown, He must first carry His cross. Before glory there must be suffering, and for Griswold that is anathema. Griswold’s heart is not touched by the suffering Christ but only by the triumphant Christ.

But that does not do justice to the biblical record. Furthermore the “reordering” he envisions for the Episcopal Church has resulted in profound chaos both for himself and the church. His “reordering” has resulted in 18 provinces declaring themselves out of communion with him over sodomy and Gene Robinson’s consecration. His “deeper place” has a definite whiff of sulphur. Griswold’s “reordering” needs to be re-wired.

Griswold: Beyond dispute the Cross was an instrument of torture and death. But Christ, by his death and resurrection, has transformed an instrument of death into a tree of life. And while we may be deeply moved and indeed convicted in our sinfulness by contemplating Christ’s sufferings, we must never forget that the Cross is the enduring sign of abundant life.

What Griswold is saying here is that we can be deeply moved even convicted by the cross, but Griswold paints it as an option, with the implied understanding that there might have been better ways, (certainly if Frank had had his way), of dealing with mankind’s sinfulness.

On the other hand if you want to stay in the vale of sin and atonement, you can do so, but you won’t find Frank there, you can find him on some plain with Sufi Rumi ‘beyond good and evil’ where the air is cleaner and no messy blood-stained rocks are to be found.

No, Frank Griswold’s ‘Passion’ is less than the biblical or Gibson version of the ‘Passion’. It is one that is ineffectual at dealing with the radical nature of mankind’s sinfulness and estrangement. At the end of the day, Griswold’s Christ saves no one and nothing, a passionless ‘Passion’ devoid of the very redemption the blood-stained cross promises.


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