A Lenten and Easter journey through film
BY AARON LAMBERT
The Lenten season is a journey. As we offer up our penances and take up almsgiving, we unite ourselves to the sacrifice of Our Lord on the cross — a sacrifice that altered the course of history and marked the beginning of the pilgrim Church’s mission here on earth.
Indeed, we are all pilgrims in the Lenten season, trekking through the desert for 40 days as Jesus did in preparation for his death and resurrection. There are so many ways to intentionally participate in the Lenten season, and one way is to abstain from TV shows and other forms of media that are perhaps not the most spiritually wholesome or edifying.
Now, if your knee-jerk response to that is something along the lines of “But most Christian and spiritual movies are cringe-inducing cheese fests!”, then this writer would be inclined to agree with you in many cases. However, it would be a mistake to write off all movies that deal with the biblical story of salvation and related narratives as unwatchable rubbish. In doing so, you’d actually be depriving yourself of some rather uplifting and powerful films that are well worth your time; some even rival the staying power of Mel Gibson’s masterpiece “The Passion of the Christ” (which is one film that should certainly be watched every year on Good Friday).
Much like the Israelites, we too journey as God’s chosen people from a sort of slavery into freedom during the Lenten and Easter seasons. To help recall this journey that is so crucial to the Christian life, here are four films to watch during these most important liturgical seasons that loosely retrace, in one way or another, our own spiritual pilgrimage as we move from death in our humanity to abundant life in Christ. A small disclaimer: While the following films are not necessarily historically accurate, the themes each convey are universal and say something profound about what it means to be a follower of Christ.
“THE PRINCE OF EGYPT”
We begin our journey into the wilderness with something of a modern classic. Aside from the memorable visual effects that were cutting edge for animated movies at the time, most will also remember the song “When You Believe” performed by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, which ended up taking home the Oscar for best original song in 1999. Based partly on the 1956 film “The Ten Commandments,” “The Prince of Egypt” is a family-friendly take on the Book of Exodus, albeit with some creative liberties taken. Despite the historical and biblical discrepancies, the essence of the story remains the same, and in the end, the film stands the test of time not only because it is endearing, but because it captures well the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom and Moses’ faithfulness to God, who often asks us to have faith in the face of seemingly impossible odds, just as Moses did.
Here we have another classic. Though it moves away from a strictly biblical story, “Ben Hur” is still no less compelling and holds up quite well as a film, even more than 60 years later. “Ben Hur” tells the story of Judah Ben Hur, a Jewish prince in Jerusalem who is falsely imprisoned by his childhood friend Messala, a Roman commander. While it appears as a revenge story of sorts, “Ben Hur” is actually a story about the healing power of Jesus. The events of the film run parallel to the life of Jesus, and it is in the encounters that Judah has with the Christ that the film’s main narrative and message ultimately lies. How many of us face the trials and hardships of this life, only to be given a drink of water by Jesus when we most need it? If you’re not in the right frame of mind to watch “The Passion of the Christ” on Good Friday, then “Ben Hur” is a great alternative to commemorate the Crucifixion and witness the healing power of the cross in all its cinematic glory.
The Resurrection, in all its glory and mystery, was not just one event among many in history; it was the event. Death was overcome and humanity was freed from its captivity to sin and the evil one. Imagine if you were a Roman soldier tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of a man who had been killed just three days earlier, a fact witnessed by hundreds of people. The 2016 film “Risen” approaches the Resurrection from this very angle, as a soldier named Clavius is sent by Pontius Pilate to get to the bottom of rumors that a Jewish messiah was raised from the dead and are spreading like fire throughout the region. What Clavius discovers changes him forever, as it should for all who encounter the risen Christ. This is a good one to watch during the Easter octave. Truly, he is risen!
“PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST”
Closing out our journey, we move into the time of the Emperor Nero, one of the fiercest and most ruthless persecutors of Christians in the first century. St. Luke travels to Rome, where St. Paul is imprisoned for spreading the Gospel — a clear threat to Nero’s reign of terror. A weary St. Paul knows his death is near, and St. Luke sneaks into the prison where he’s being held to convince St. Paul to write an account of his life that will become the Acts of the Apostles. These events are depicted in the 2018 film, “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” which serves as a great capstone to close the Easter season. The film features emotive performances from Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner as Luke and Paul, respectively, and adequately portrays a key moment of time in the birth of the early Church, a Church founded on the resurrected Christ that endures to this day.
Aaron Lambert is a writer from Denver.