For most of the first millennium of Christian history, the Church spread a veil of modest discretion over the physical suffering of Jesus. It respected the privacy of his final hours and celebrated the empty crucifix as a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus (an event which is noted only weakly and vaguely in Mr. Gibson's conclusion). The Greek churches, even to this day, resist sensationalist presentations of the suffering of Jesus.
However, in the Middle Ages, the Western church gradually put the corpus back on the cross, though it did not present Jesus as naked, as he in fact would have been. The cult of the physical suffering of Jesus became especially strong during the renaissance. It was not always a completely healthy devotion, as the cult of the flagellants demonstrated.
Crucifixion was a cruel form of execution. After the slave revolution of Spartacus, thirty thousands slaves were crucified along the Apian Way. The death of Jesus was not unique in its cruelty, however horrible it may have been. Whether our modern methods of execution are any more humane might be an open question. It was typical of everything in the life of Jesus that he chose to be united in his death with the poor and the oppressed, a point Mr. Gibson seems to have missed.
Mr. Gibson showed his hand in his interview with Diane Sawyer when he said that because the gates of heaven were closed by the sin of our first parents, Jesus had to suffer to open them again. This metaphor, which my generation heard often in grammar school, is a poor adaptation of the teaching of St. Anselm who proposed that the suffering of Jesus paid the blood price to satisfy God and free us from our sins. Anselm's theology is not Catholic faith. It has caused a lot of misunderstanding among Catholics who absorbed it in their youth.
One may wonder what kind of God would demand such a price from his beloved son. Is this the same kind of implacably forgiving God whom Jesus preached in his life?
We all must suffer, we all must die. Death, no matter how brief or how protracted, is horrible. Do those who die after a prolonged battle with cancer die any less horribly than Jesus? What does his death say to all of us who must die? One will watch "The Passion of the Christ" in vain for any hint of an answer to that question.
The lesson of Good Friday, properly understood, is that God suffers with us. Like every good parent, he suffers when his children suffer. When Jesus hung on the cross, God (the person was the Second Person of the Trinity) made common cause with the Iraqi peasant shot in the back and tossed into the pit to be consumed by fire. God cannot prevent our sufferings, but he suffers with us.
Isn't God above all suffering? One can only reply that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures presents himself as suffering with his people. Good Friday is good precisely because on that day God identified himself with his people. "Christ," as Annie Dillard writes, "hangs on the cross, as it were, forever, always incarnate and always nailed."
That fundamental flaw which St. Paul describes as the struggle between what we want to do and what we actually do (and which St. Augustine dubbed "original sin") is our fear of our own mortality. We do those things which we know we shouldn't do because we are afraid of death. On Good Friday, God did not take away death, but he did absorb our God-forsakenness and promise that when it is time to die, he will die once again with us.