The best way to figure out why something absolutely had to happen is to imagine what it would be like if it had happened in some other way. That is what David Gray is doing in a comfortable Geneva, Ill., living room with six other men from his church. They are, as it were, brainstorming Jesus' death. "What if God's plan were that Jesus comes to earth," asks Gray, "and he does these teachings and he talks nice. You know, 'Love your enemy ...' And then he is taken away and not killed. Why in God's plan did he have to suffer like this?"
The other members of the men's Bible study associated with St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Geneva contemplate the question.
"God's plan probably has to be more dramatic?" suggests one.
"Right," says another, briefly imagining God's thinking. "'You folks don't get it. We've gotta make something dramatic here.'"
"One word I would add to this discussion," says a third. "Obedience. [Jesus] was totally obedient."
Gray chews all this over and comes to a conclusion. "It physically had to happen," he says. "I'm not sure I would have said that before I saw the movie. But now it's much clearer to me. I can't say why he had to suffer the way he did. But Christ had to die."
The movie, of course, is The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's version of Jesus' final hours on earth--which, since it opened on Ash Wednesday, has been seen by more than 30 million people. It is now Holy Week, and across the country over the next seven days even more people will be talking about Christ's Passion. In the U.S. alone, tens of millions will attend church and participate in services that relive the death and Resurrection of the Messiah. For a certain sector of the public, the seasonal spirit has been further enhanced by the publication of The Glorious Appearing, the 12th book in the best-selling Left Behind series, in which Jesus returns in apocalyptic judgment.
But what will mark this Easter week as different for an even greater number of Christians--and perhaps deepen the nature of its observance a bit--will be the ongoing impact of The Passion of the Christ. In addition to attending church services, many will fill the plush pews at their local cinemas to absorb--some for the first time, others for the second or fifth--Gibson's graphic celluloid sermon in parallel with their pastors' talks. In the past six weeks the film has made $340 million. It has opened in about 350 additional theaters for Holy Week, but even so, there are no doubt locales where people will be turned away from full showings, particularly on Friday.