Not having seen the recent Ben-Hur, I can only imagine how excruciatingly awful it must have been for audiences to have to sit through this latest box office bust. I say that, not because I possess clairvoyant powers, but because I’ve seen too many reviews predicting the movie would almost certainly go into the tank, which it pretty much already has given millions of dollars lost in revenues since its release last August. And, of course, in talking to people who have actually seen both versions, there is really no comparison with the earlier one starring Charlton Heston. A film of truly epic proportions, it deservedly won the eleven Oscars it was given when it first appeared in 1959.
I was a young boy back then and, like most everyone else, was entirely mesmerized by the experience. Up against the stunning grandeur and sweep of the original, this latest remake—“thuddingly dull-witted,” as one critic put it—is a digital disaster.
But it wasn’t—surprise, surprise—the chariot race that did it for me. Oh, it had a riveting effect, all right, which is exactly what director William Wyler had in mind with his four million dollar investment, along with the ten weeks and fifteen thousand extras he hired to shoot it. But what really stole my heart was the scene with Heston at the well where, en route to the galleys as a prisoner indentured to the army of Rome, he is confronted by a strange bearded fellow who steps out of the crowd to give him a drink of water. It is clearly the figure of Christ. And although we never see his face, nor hear his voice, there must have been something extraordinarily telling in the look he gave the guard, because it so utterly disarmed him that, all at once, he allows the character Heston is playing (Judah Ben-Hur) to drink the water. It is a look that sears itself upon his soul; he will never be the same again.
It was just that arresting scene from the 1959 film that has stayed with me ever since. Which is why, were I to see the truncated version in which it has been left out, I doubt that I’d be able to stifle my dismay at the sheer mindlessness of Hollywood film directors who, as Chesterton would say, “don’t know what they’re doing because they don’t know what they’re undoing.”
We have come a long way since 1959, having witnessed the undoing of a great many things along the way. Including, I fear, the sense of wonderment awakened by the Event of Christ itself. It is that loss, it seems to me, which more than anything accounts for the missing scene from the current movie. It is simply not there because the impact of what happened so long ago is no longer felt in any sort of elemental way, at least not among the cinematic story tellers who, in feeling no compunction whatsoever in leaving it out, have pretty much gutted the whole plot of the story they’re telling us.
“Never was a tale told,” writes J.R.R. Tolkien, “that a man might hope to find true.” Alas, for a great many people these days, it hardly matters either way. Or, as Reinhold Neihbur once put it, nothing is worse than the answer to a question nobody is asking. “Who do people say that I am?” asks Jesus of Nazareth. Who cares? might be the refrain making the rounds today. And not just in Hollywood, either. The forgetfulness, the willful suppression of historical memory, has spread far and wide. Indeed, not a few theologians have succumbed, evincing their dis-ease in the presence of an event whose exceptionality they no longer share. “We live in a time marked in its own way by a denial of the Incarnation,” declared Pope Saint John Paul II in a message marking the turn of the third millennium of Christianity, delivered to a gathering of Dominicans in 2001, of whom there were surely some he had in mind.
For the first time since the birth of Christ two thousand years ago, it is as if he no longer had a place in an ever more secularized world… Many claim to admire Jesus and to value elements of his teaching. Yet he remains distant: he is not truly known, loved, and obeyed, but consigned to a distant past or a distant heaven.
Well, thank heaven, there was no distance separating the early Christians from Christ, the encounter with whom carried all the freshness of a beautiful day. One thinks of a certain tax collector called Levi, for example, who, on suddenly seeing the face of Jesus, the gimlet look of whose eye saw straight through to his soul, drops everything in order to follow this man right to the end. The gaze of Jesus becomes a provocation, as it were, an urgent summons that cannot be ignored. In the impact of an instant, lasting no longer than a look, everything changes for that man.
Once the Incarnation happens, in other words, nothing remains the same. That intensity of love shown on the face of Christ, whether caught in a certain look or conveyed in a couple of words (“He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.”), simply cannot be deflected.
We see this take the most wonderful and unexpected form, by the way, with another moneyman named Zacchaeus, chief tax-collector in Jericho, which puts him in the pay of the oppressors. And what does he do but climb a sycamore tree in hopes of catching a glimpse of Jesus. Not suspecting, of course, that Jesus is hoping to catch a glimpse of him. And to entice him to come quickly down to earth so that the two of them might dine together. How piercing must that look of the Logos have been to pry him loose from those limbs. And then to persuade him to promise half he possesses for the sake of the poor he’s been busy bilking.
And, finally, of course, there is the story of the adulterous woman whom everyone wants to stone. Until, that is, Jesus says something so startling as to reduce them all to silence. Fr. Richard Veras, in a recent reflection in Magnificat, has lamented the fact that while many young people remain ignorant of “even the most iconic gospel passages,” nevertheless, it is still possible for Christ to leave them spellbound by the things he says and does. The story of this woman is a splendid case in point. “What did Jesus say?” he asks a group of confirmation students in recounting the episode. They haven’t a clue. So he tells them: “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone.” Following five full seconds of silence, a voice from the back can be heard exclaiming, “Oh my Go(sh), that’s so cool!”
Yes, Fr. Veras assures them, Jesus is certainly a cool dude. “And just when you thought he couldn’t get cooler,” he adds, “I recounted what he said to the woman after everyone left, ‘I do not condemn you either.’”
Among the many gifts God has given us, could there be any greater—or more scandalous and shocking—than the gift of Incarnation? Why would God go to Palestine, just to save all that is yours and mine? And the answer is because that’s the pivot on which everything else turns. Christ’s humanity is the place, the very line written in the sand, where eternity meets time, heaven crashes into history. Without that footing in the finite world, amid the flesh and the blood of sinful man, the infinite God can do us no good. And, of course, it is only from the angle of the eye, of the face of the human being Jesus, that the Logos itself may look out upon our world, and see the race of men for whom he has come in human form to rescue and redeem.
If that doesn’t knock your socks off, what in heaven or on earth will?