Saturday, June 09, 2012

Ite Missa Est

I saw a movie recently called "Jesus of Montreal" about a troupe of secular actors hired to rewrite and produce the Passion Play/ Stations of the Cross for a RCC Cathedral -- hired by a jaded, cynical, non celibate, company man of a lapsed priest just living out his term to keep his pension. The eventual script deviates wildly from the canonical understanding of the life Jesus, yet is full of Gospel passages and familiar stories from the life of Jesus. .

"Jesus of Montreal" depicts scenes from the play, staged outdoors at night as the audience follows the action from Station to Station. The playwright himself acts the part of Jesus, and is ever-so-convincing. He walks among the crowd/audience quietly and intensely preaching, citing text from the Gospels, looking people lovingly in the eye, distributing bread.

The audience is wildly enthused --afterward, they come up to the actors praising them, fawning, gushing -- as over a piece of secular art they have just consumed and which has fed their ego and their need to be distracted and entertained. The cast, on the other hand, are all profoundly spiritually transformed.

The play, of course, gets banned for its heterodoxy; the cast puts on a final, rogue performance during which the police show up, a melee ensues and the cross falls over and gravely wounds the actor. He's brought to a thronged Catholic hospital ED and is ignored, so, accompanied by two women cast members, he leaves. Then there's a scene in a nearly deserted subway station where he (clearly dying) stumbles from person to person declaiming Jesus' Olivet discourse, sometimes called "the little apocalypse." This is the passage about the end times, heralded by "wars and rumors of wars," by the "desolating sacrilege," times so dire that, if you're on your rooftop, you must come down and flee without even stopping to pack, and woe to you if it is winter or you are nursing or great with child.

The people, aghast, look away. Without the sanctioning distance of art, they back away from the apparent madman as he collars them with a discourse of love and alarm -- and finally collapses to the ground. Brought this time, but too late, to a caring Jewish hospital, he dies and his organs are harvested and donated. In the final scene, a cynical and entreprenurial agent is trying to persuade the surviving actors to form an avant-garde "but profitable" acting company in his name.

I've been trying all week to put my finger on what was so compelling about this film, how it spoke to me about Jesus in a real and vitalizing way. After all, the movie was not directly about Jesus, rather it was about an actor playing Jesus. He was a very good actor and he brought Jesus to life as teacher, prophet, friend, and that was part of it. But, in the end, dying, outside the safe confines of the play, he seems to channel Jesus, even to have become Jesus, preaching on the idolatrous and violent "desolating sacrilege" of the current world. The actor has internalized Jesus Eucharistically; he has been sent forth from the play, from the liturgy, from the Mass (Ite Missa est) , into the world. And he is regarding the world (as James Alison so eloquently describes in his essay "contemplation in a world of violence") through the eyes of Jesus and with the heart of Jesus and, through that, with the mind of God.

And even I can say a provisional amen to that.