Gibson’s Passion and Mary “Co-redemptrix”
In a recent interview with Mel Gibson, Christianity Today referred to Gibson as a traditionalist Catholic who “likes the Tridentine Latin Mass and calls Mary Co-redemptrix.” There’s another well-known Catholic who also calls the Mother of Jesus the Co-redemptrix: His name is Pope John Paul II. He has done so on six occasions during his post Vatican II pontificate.
What does the Co-redemptrix title mean? From the Catholic perspective, it refers to Mary’s unique human participation with Jesus (and entirely subordinate to her divine son) in the historic work of saving humanity from sin. Jesus is the only Redeemer, in the sense that he alone as the one divine mediator between God and man could redeem or “buy back” the human family from the bonds of Satan and sin. But God willed that the Mother of Jesus participate in this redemptive process like no other creature.
In light of her Immaculate Conception in which she was conceived without original sin through the foreseen merits of her Son, Mary is the sinless virgin Mother in total “enmity” or opposition with Satan, who becomes the ideal human partner with Jesus in the salvation of the human race. Early Christian writers called her the “New Eve,” who together with Jesus, the “New Adam,” accomplished the work of salvation for all the fallen children of the original Adam and Eve.
Mel Gibson has given the world its most powerful cinematic portrayal of the Mother of Jesus precisely as the Co-redemptrix in his blockbuster film, The Passion of the Christ.
From early in the film it is clear that Mary alone has a special participation in Jesus’ saving mission. As the soldiers of the Sanhedrin bring Jesus in to stand trial before Caiaphas, Jesus looks at Mary from across the courtyard and Mary says softly, “It has begun, Lord . . . so be it.” The Mother knows that the mission of human redemption has begun. She offers her sorrowful “so be it” to this mission to accompany her joyful “so be it” at the announcement of the angel Gabriel which first brought the Redeemer into the world.
Throughout the film, it is only Jesus and Mary who see their mutual adversary Satan, in his androgenized form. During the way of the cross, Mary slides her way through the crowd to accompany her tortured son carrying his cross when she spots Satan as he parallels her movements on the other side of the crowd. She recognizes her antagonist, looks at him for a moment, and then refixes her gaze on her suffering son.
Earlier, Satan appears during the scourging of Jesus carrying a demonic child, which conveys the Old Testament Genesis prophecy of the battle between the “woman” and her “seed” (Jesus Christ), and the serpent (Satan) and his “seed” or offspring of evil. After the scourging, Mary is inspired to soak up the blood of the Savior, splattered throughout the area of the pillar, with linens. She alone knows that each drop of this divine blood is supernaturally redemptive.
Many times during the savage process of the passion (for example, at the scourging, during the way of the cross, at Calvary), it is the glance of his Mother that gives Jesus the human support that strengthens him to proceed to the next stage of suffering. After one fall on the Via Dolorosa, Mary crawls next to her mutilated son and re-assures him: “I’m here.” Jesus regains some focus and replies to her concerning the mission: “See Mother, I make all things new.”
It is not Jesus alone, but all the disciples (Peter, John, the Magdalene), who call Mary, “Mother.” On Calvary, Mary receives from Jesus her designation as universal Mother.
As Jesus, who is affixed to the cross, is being raised up from the ground, Mary, whose hands clutched the rocky ground as her sons’ hands were nailed to the cross, rises from her kneeling position in proportion to her son’s being raised on the cross. She then stands upright as her son is now upright on the gibbet.
After some time, Mary approaches the cross with John, the beloved disciple. She kisses Jesus’ bloodied foot, and pleads for permission to die with him at this climactic moment of redemption: “Flesh of my flesh, Heart of my heart, my Son. Let me die with you!” Jesus responds to his mother and to John: “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.” As the fruit of her sufferings with Jesus, Mary becomes the spiritual mother of all beloved disciples, and of all humanity redeemed at Calvary.
In The Passion of the Christ, Gibson has accomplished a Marian feat no pastor or theologian could achieve in the same way. He has given the world through its most popular visual medium a portrayal of a real human mother, whose heart is inseparably united to her son’s heart. This mother’s heart is pierced to its very depths as she spiritually shares in the brutal immolation of her innocent son. Hers is an immaculate heart which silently endures and offers this suffering with her son for the same heavenly purpose: to buy back the human race from sin.
Mary Co-redemptrix has been given her first international film debut in a supporting role, and it’s a hit.
Dr. Mark Miravalle
Professor of Theology and Mariology
Franciscan University of Steubenville