Ten years ago, Mel Gibson’s
The Passion of the Christ
earned $611.9 million worldwide. Now filmmakers are returning to the Bible as a ready source for their art. This year alone promises five new Bible-based movies. In March,
. In April,
Heaven is For Real
. In December,
Mary, Mother of Christ
. By the first week following its release this past February 28, the movie
Son of God
grossed $30,124,842. Clearly, there is deep within the soul of America an interest in the message of religion.
In the cinematic retelling of events from the Bible, the faithful will easily find inspiration. The curious will gain information; and, the unbeliever may even come to face to face with soul-searching questions about the reality of God. But, no film can capture all that the Sacred Scriptures tell us. Take, for instance, the recently released movie
The Son of God
Action-packed and filled with beautiful cinematography, the movie boldly unfolds the basic Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God, a divine person with a human nature. Last year’s History Channel miniseries
provides the footage for this inspirational look at the life of Jesus. Since the movie condenses the entire life of Jesus in 138 minutes, there was need to focus on some aspects of Jesus’ life, e.g. his compassion, his humanity, his suffering, death and resurrection. There was also the need to summarize much of his teaching and to edit out many of his miracles.
The producers of
The Son of God
made an artistic call to cut out the character of Satan from their film. They wanted the viewers to focus on Jesus. They saw the devil as a distraction from the mission of Jesus. But can anyone really understand Jesus without the devil? Did not Jesus come to save us from sin and from Satan? Can any portrayal, whether in film, in preaching or in catechesis, really be authentic without reference to the devil? Pope Francis would certainly answer with a resounding “No.”
Since assuming the Petrine ministry, Pope Francis has been continually preaching about God's love and mercy. But, he has not shied away from speaking frequently and forcibly about the devil. In this, the Pope is very biblical. The devil is no obscure figure in Sacred Scripture. He appears cunning and deceptive on the first pages of Genesis and remains part of the biblical narrative until he is finally defeated in the Book of Revelation.
In Jesus’ lifetime, some of the Jewish leaders were against him. Their Roman counterparts were indifferent. But, Satan
the archenemy of Jesus. The devil appears no less than thirty times in the gospels. He is Jesus’ enemy and ours as well. Pope Francis would not have us forget this.
The very day after his election as pope, on March 14, 2013, at his first papal Mass in the Sistine Chapel, Pope Francis said to the cardinals who had elected him, “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil. When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.” He began his Petrine ministry, as Jesus began his public ministry, first confronting head-on the reality of the devil. The very next day, the Pope spoke about the role of the Holy Spirit who unites the Church. And, then, he added, “Let us never yield to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day.”
The Holy Father recognizes the work of the devil, but he is emphatic about the power of Christ over him. In his first Palm Sunday homily, Pope Francis reminded us that Christ is always near to us, ready to help us. He said, “A Christian can never be sad. Never give way to discouragement. Christian joy comes from knowing Jesus is near, even in times of trial when problems seem insurmountable…The enemy -- the devil -- comes, often disguised as an angel and slyly speaks his word to us. Do not listen to him! Let us follow Jesus!” In his weekly general audience on April 17,2013, the Pope encouraged us not to fear because “Jesus being always near… defends us from the insidiousness of the devil, he defends us from ourselves, from our sins.”
The media has been focusing on the Church’s need to bring greater transparency to the Vatican Bank and her need to reform her cumbersome bureaucracy. Pope Francis focuses our attention on a much more fundamental issue. The external reforms within the Church are necessary. But, they take second place to conversion, the internal reform within each believer who turns away from sin and Satan and toward Christ and his mercy.
A recent Barna survey reported that nearly 60 percent of Christians in America view the devil as only a symbol of evil. Merely a quarter of those who took part in the survey strongly affirm the devil’s personal existence. Just think of how often the devil is mentioned in preaching and teaching. A generation ago, some were claiming “God is dead.” Today, they are saying “the devil is dead.” But not Pope Francis.
Pope Francis never talks about the devil as a myth or symbol of evil. He speaks about him with utter realism as a personal being. In his October 11, 2013 Mass at Santa Marta, he said, “Some may say, ‘but, Father, you're too old fashioned. You're frightening us with these things.’ No, it's not me! It is the Gospel! And these are not lies: it is the Word of the Lord. Let us ask the Lord for the grace to take these things seriously. He came to fight for our salvation. He won against the devil. Please, let's not do business with the devil. He wants to come back home, to take possession … Don't accept relativism, be vigilant. And always with Jesus!”
To a time and age that likes to leave the devil out of the picture, the Pope is making a revolutionary contribution. He is calling us back to the basics of our faith. As William Jefferson has remarked, “It’s not likely… that the evil one is still lying about on a cutting-room floor, grieving over his ouster from the
Son of God
. He’s been around since time began, and he knows how to survive a fall (
William E. Jefferson
, February 28, 2014).
Refusing to remain silent about the devil and not reducing him to a metaphor, Pope Francis reminds us that the real drama of Christianity is the struggle between good and evil, between Christ and the devil. “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:13). But, Christ has already won the battle. By his Death and Resurrection, he has triumphed over the enemy, despoiling the devil of his power (cf. Col 2:12-15). For those united with Christ, the victory is already won!