What's Catholic About 'The Passion'? A Lot

The Stations of the Cross, the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and Catholic mystics' visions shape Mel Gibson's work.

BY: Jennifer Waters


What's in "The Passion of the Christ" that's not in the Bible? Mel Gibson has said that while drawing most heavily from the Gospels, he also based his movie on extra-biblical sources, many of which fuel his Catholic faith. Scenes corresponding to the Stations of the Cross, the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and visions of Catholic mystics appear in the film.

The Stations of the Cross are a Catholic devotion meant to evoke a contemplative experience of Jesus' last hours. The faithful follow a series of 14 pictorial images representing scenes of Jesus' condemnation, his road to Calvary, and his crucifixion. The images often are shown on the walls of Catholic churches so believers can move from one "station" to another, reflecting on Christ's suffering. The traditional 14 stations trace events as follows:

1: Jesus is condemned to death. [All the Gospels agree.]

2: Jesus bears his cross. [All the Gospels agree.]

3: Jesus falls the first time beneath the cross. [Although plausible, no falls are explicitly mentioned in the Gospels.]

4: Jesus meets his mother, Mary. [Although John 19:26 says Mary was standing nearby as Jesus died, the Gospel does not mention a meeting while he was carrying the cross.]

5: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross. [Mark 15:21]

6: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. [The theme of a woman wiping the sweat and blood from Jesus' face, using a veil that later bore his image, is not recorded in scripture. It most likely originated in a 14th-century French legend.]

7: Jesus falls a second time. [See number 3.]

8: Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem. [Luke 23:27-32]

9: Jesus falls a third time. [See number 3.]

10: Jesus is stripped of his garments. [All the Gospels agree. This is seen as a fulfillment of Psalm 22:18, which says, "They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing."]

11: Jesus is nailed to the cross. [Although the Gospels say Jesus was crucified, they do not specify the method used. Ropes were a possibility. However, John 20:27 implies nails were used; in it, the risen Christ invites Thomas to touch the holes in his hands.]

12: Jesus dies on the cross. [All the Gospels agree.]

13: Jesus is taken from the cross. [All the Gospels agree.]

14: Jesus is laid in the tomb. [All the Gospels agree.]

Based on 4th-century pilgrimages to the Holy Land to retrace the steps that Christ walked to Calvary, the Stations took shape over the centuries. In the early Middle Ages, those who couldn't make the trip to Jerusalem would build churches in their local areas with pictures representing the scenes of Jesus' journey. Franciscans in the late 18th century broadly popularized the Stations, says Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.

The movie also includes all the scenes from the rosary's "Sorrowful Mysteries," subjects on which Catholics meditate while praying with beads. The five Sorrowful Mysteries are less specific than the Stations and have closer Gospel parallels. They are the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion.

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