‘It Was Almost as Though We Were All in Our Own Tombs.’ Roma Downey talks COVID, Jesus and ‘Resurrection’

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We’re coming up to our second Easter to be celebrated in the midst of a global pandemic. And while vaccines are on their way and things are beginning to normalize, we’re not there yet. And many of us are still worshipping from home.

But Roma Downey hopes to help us worship, talk about, and contemplate Jesus a little bit more this year.

Downey and husband Mark Burnett (both pictured above) have been involved in several popular Bible-based movies and television shows, including the surprise smash 2013 miniseries The Bible and the follow-up film Son of God. Now they’re back with a new production, this one on Discovery+.

It’s called Resurrection, and you might’ve gathered from the title, it deals not so much with Christ’s earthly ministry and crucifixion as it does with what came after, all the way through Pentecost. It’s also told through very human eyes, especially those of Peter—a man who moves from denying Jesus three times to becoming “The Rock” of a newfound community of believers.

Plugged In had a chance to chat with Downey about the film, the curious time we’re in and what moves her the most about the story. (The interview has been edited a bit for length and clarity.)

Paul Asay: Thanks so much for talking with us today, Roma.

Roma Downey: It’s my pleasure, and I’m just so excited about the movie coming. I could sing it from the rooftops.

Asay: I think I’ve read somewhere that you grew up watching a lot of biblical films like this, right?

Downey: I grew up in Ireland, and I have very fond memories of gathering around the TV set as a family to watch these stories when they came on TV. Now, this is way before even VCRs or DVDs or anything like that, so you had to catch it when it came on TV. And I loved all of those. But you know, that’s a long time ago, and sometimes those old movies, while we love them emotionally and fondly and nostalgically, they don’t necessarily hold up, and they wouldn’t necessarily hold the connection of a young audience.

I think that audiences today have become very sophisticated and discerning. They get to see a lot of excellent movies, and just because a movie is well-intended, and just because a movie is a faith movie, it doesn’t mean that the movie can’t be great. It needs to be just as great as anything else coming out of Hollywood. And I believe we’ve achieved this with Resurrection. I’m hoping in particular that a lot of our youth will enjoy watching the film, and we’re just encouraging families to gather together around the TV over this Easter period, with the kids … and watch the Easter story together and maybe, you know, just jump in and have a good old conversation about it afterwards.

The movie offers plenty of opportunity for discussion. And it concentrates on an interesting period of time, when even the disciples were filled with a lot of fear and uncertainty in the wake of Jesus’ death.

Downey: The movie begins at the crucifixion, and the story is really told from the point of view of the disciples. We know from Scripture that only John, the beloved, was at the foot of the cross with Mary Magdalene and Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Judas had betrayed Jesus, but where were the 10 others? Where did they go? We have to imagine that they probably scattered out of fear, that perhaps they were going to be, you know, the next victims of the cruel and oppressive Roman regime.

The first big dramatic scene after the crucifixion, we see them all coming back together. They’re heartbroken and grieving, because Jesus has been killed, but they’re also afraid. They’re confused. And I think that there’s also some shame or guilt that they did run away. That they weren’t there for Jesus. What we liked about crafting that story is that it allows the audience to relate. [We see them here] as real humans. We see their humanity. We see their vulnerabilities, you know? And we realize that courage isn’t the absence of fear: That courage is having fear, but still stepping up.

Asay: When you talk about the humanity of these characters, this is as much Peter’s story as it is Jesus’ story, it seems like. We follow Peter as he goes through that fear and doubt and becomes willing to take on the responsibilities that Jesus has lain on him. Was there a reason that you chose to look at this story through Peter’s eyes?

Downey: Peter was the one who [Jesus] singled out to be The Rock. It was almost as if [Jesus] handed the mantle to [Peter] to lead them. And we thought it would be interesting to see that vulnerable character at the beginning, and just to see how he does discover his own leadership skills, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, he really fills the shoes that Jesus asks him to fill.

But when we see Thomas in the upper room, that’s another beautiful moment, and a reminder for all of us who have ever had any doubts. … I just love how we remember that Jesus just received all of them with love and forgiveness, and they came back and unconditionally loved Him. It’s such a powerful story, and such a story for the time that we’re living in.

I rather liked the symbolism of the film and how we can apply it to our own lives also, at this time. A year ago we were locked in. We were disconnected, isolated, lonely, cut off from the people we loved. It was almost as though we were all in our own tombs. And here we are, a year later, and we’re all just longing to step out into the light, to experience a resurrection in our own lives—a resurrection in our businesses, in our economy, a resurrection in our families, and maybe most of all in our churches, so we can finally get back together in community to worship together. Some places are doing that, many places are still not. I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the COVID pandemic, but we’re not quite there yet. But I hope the Resurrection movie … will be a reminder of the light that is awaiting us and the hope that is awaiting us.

Asay: A lot of our users are very familiar with the biblical stories that you and Mark have produced and helped bring to the screen. This may be a very obvious question, but what draws you back to these biblical stories? Why is it important to re-tell them on screen?

Downey: That’s a great question. Through my company LightWorkers, we are committed to creating content and telling stories that inspire, that uplift, that encourage. And we also tell contemporary stories. We have a very robust social platform where every day we’re pushing out positive content, you know? To fulfill that mission statement that we will uplift and encourage, ignite and inspire.

I think it’s good, though, in the midst of all of that, to go back to the source. This is the source material, isn’t it? This is the word of God. These are our Scriptures. These are our sacred stories.

Back almost 12 years ago when Mark and I made The Bible series together, we were terrified and excited about the possibility of creating stories from our Bible, because we love the Bible, but we’re not Bible experts. Because we knew it was a huge responsibility to deal with this sacred text, we brought in consultants and theologians and pastors. We had over 40 on The Bible series. And to be perfectly honest with you, they didn’t all agree with each other, which presented its own set of challenges! And we did the same here for Resurrection.

What the Bible gives us really is like the factual stories. And of course, with the Gospels, we hear it from four different points of view: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But none of them are written as a novel would be. We don’t get to understand the nuance or the emotional connections. And that’s the luxury of what we’re able to do in film. We take the factual elements of the story, we remain true to those factual elements, but we’re able to create a narrative that an audience can identify and relate to and be emotionally connected to. And be moved by. I always believe that if the heart opens, the Holy Spirit does the rest. Our job is just to open the heart. To crack open the heart.

Many hearts will come to this that are already open to Jesus. It’s an obvious movie for Easter, for anybody who believes to come and watch the Resurrection. But we hold onto the hope, too, that maybe there are people who’ve never heard the story of Jesus. Who don’t know anything about our faith. And who may stumble upon this film because it’s a really great, exciting, compelling, gripping drama.

Asay: No matter how familiar you are with this story, it always brings new things. So, with that in mind, I wanted to ask you: As you went through this production, did you learn something new? What moved you about making this movie?

Downey: I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a mother and I have a mother’s heart, but I never can watch this movie, or any movie that has Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing and remaining at the foot of the cross [without thinking of how she must’ve felt]. You can’t imagine the strength and courage needed to see your child being murdered before your eyes. And yet I feel certain that she stood there, looking up, so that when He would look down, He would see the face of love. That the last thing Jesus would see from His earthly life would be the loving eyes of His mother.

We also know scripturally that Jesus only said seven things from the cross. But He took time while He was dying to love His mother, to take care of His mother. I always say you gotta love a man who loves his mother.

I also love how we end the movie, because we take the audience from the first century—reminding them that this was just a handful of believers—and then we go to the 21st century, when there are over 2.2 billion Christians in the world. And we cut around the world to see different Christian communities in worship. There’s something so comforting and empowering—particularly in a year when we felt so disconnected from each other, and quite frankly in a year when we felt so divided from each other—to be reminded that we belong to a bigger community. A bigger family. Sons and daughters of a living God. I find that just so encouraging.

Resurrection will premiere on Discovery+ tomorrow, March 27, and will be available throughout the Easter season.

2 Responses

  1. -This is a recut of material from their series AD. It ran a few years ago on CBS and then tragically was canceled. I loved it while it was on and bought the full set but it’s defiantly violent. I’m sorry it got canceled; I thought their Paul and Peter respectively were incredible performances. Even if Pilate was a stereotypical Roman villain.

  2. -Although a great article with the husband/wife and love everything they say have a slight bone to pick with the beginning part. You mention how we’re not there yet to meet in person or worship in church etc, but I beg to differ. Yes last year was intense, but we are well past the curve, can totally meet other in Christians and in fact for sake of spiritual encouragement/nourishing should totally be meeting up again. The fact is now churches are shrinking cause of falsely listening to propaganda based media that has agenda and wants to keep people locked unconstitutional and insanely forever. Yes originally there was a real threat, but we need to get past it if we’re ever going to have our economy heal and buisness not all close up. As is we’re still probably going to be in a Great Depression and have our economy tank, not to mention the thousands of Americans financially, mentally, and socially hurting cause of it…

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