The ink's barely dry on the--what? Encyclicals? Bulls?--of the Second Vatican Council, and already it seems the Catholic Church is different. Or maybe it's just the effect of watching Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew: Should I write that it was "transfiguring"? His straight-faced Jesus manages theologic math--100% one, 100% the Other--that is, no fooling around, a Mystery of the Church that Pasolini eventually seems to accept, whether it be Joyful or Sorrowful.
This Jesus comes straight out of Matthew, simple and almost amateurish--with particular scorn for the rich and an insistence on keeping children at His feet while holding up the eye of a needle in taunting dismissal. He's almost hip, a "Jesus for our time," a secular, self-invented savior--one deep cat, daddio, next best thing to a copy of Herman Hesse’s Siddartha--but without the drag of Mystery. But Pasolini leaves in the miracles, performed as physical actions, a nod or a hand raised. It seems the wise man can do mad things.
And one more thing is added, a jolt of memory and recognition: on the soundtrack was Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” which I hadn't heard in years--but have never forgotten, his moaning and his guitar conspiring like angels to take me to the foot of the Cross. Just writing about it, I can hardly take it. The leper approaches Jesus, and I found myself suddenly tearful. How did Pasolini know that, despite my vacillations and fear of God’s silence, I am moved more than I can express by the curing miracles? Especially lepers--frightening when I was young, like Karloff's Mummy, shambling horrors that could enlist you in their hopeless number with a mere touch, like Judas' kiss. To hear about saints not only caring for but embracing, even kissing lepers--Francis comes to mind--is terrible, because I know it is expected of me.
Oh, boy. This may be more than a mere movie conveyed. But the "problem of pain" of course never goes away; it presses on me like the problem of love--and when they speak together, it is a conspiracy, their cheeks touching, breathing together.
Hearing Johnson's song about Jesus' burial while on screen He cured the leper made me suddenly imagine that Jesus' cures--all the way to poor Lazarus--were for Him moments of poignant indulgence, opportunities to provide for others what He could not for Himself: rescue from the dark night and the cold ground. And more: Signifiers of the Promise. I will not handle this too much; it is fragile, and I'll need it. But I do love that song, and will not apologize for my tears. The last line of the hymn that Willie simply moans--his audience knew the words--enjoins us to "awake to watch and pray." It is the least we can do; after all, the night is dark, the ground is cold, and we should not leave each other alone.
Listen and attend, children: