Films for Lent

calvary-ocean-rocksLent sounds a little morbid. It’s a time of obsessing over our sinfulness while reflecting on our death—forty dark days of self-denial. In an age of self-indulgence, I would expect Lent to fade into the background, but it hasn’t. Lenten reflection and disciplines seem to be growing. Each year, Facebook, Twitter, and Google track the various Lenten fasts. Even many non-religious people have gotten into the habit of giving up something for Lent.

Watching movies is one way I practice the Lenten journey. It might seem contradictory to combine entertainment with penitence. While we often think of films as amusing, though, we can also think through films as a way to hear the voice of the muse. We hear and watch stories that speak in more ways than we can process in one sitting. In a season focused on the road to Calvary, I am drawn to tales that depict believers obediently following this same path, leading into the dark shadows of death.

Of Gods and Men (2011) showed me the beauty and freedom of sacrifice. A small band of monks faces the threat of death by terrorism. Through fear and doubt, they choose to continue the pattern of their lives, chanting the offices and serving the peasants around them. During Christmas, at the height of the tension, they sing and hold a feast that captures the essence of the Last Supper.

The pastoral images prick my imagination with a vision of living witness in the midst of impending death. They share a sweet communion in song and food. A soft light enfolds their faces as they share a bottle of wine together. It is a cup of joy and a cup of sorrow. I am reminded of Paul’s encouragement that in Christ we share comfort even as we share in suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

Though I have not known impending threat of execution, I have known times of loss. My first inclination in times of pain has been to withdraw inwardly. This impulse can strip me of the communion poured out through Christ’s body. In the mystery of grace, the suffering that can easily become isolating can also become a place of love and even worship. Just as the monks face their fears together, I have found a grace in facing my brokenness alongside friends who also know brokenness and loss.

“The trumpet of imagination, like the trumpet of the Resurrection, calls the dead out of their graves,” says G.K. Chesterton. The invitation toward silence and reflection may help us to hear and heed that trumpet call of renewed wakefulness amidst a sleeping world. The images in Calvary (2014) haunt my mind with the gritty feel of darkness rejecting the light of the world. In the opening moments, Father James is told during confession that he has a week to put his affairs in order before he will be killed. The coming confrontation is not because he is a bad priest but because he is a good priest. The film moves relentlessly toward his final encounter.

In one sense, the whole film is an extended confession of sin from a post-Christian culture that openly mocks faith. Father James hears confession about a specific hatred caused by an abusive priest while also hearing the general mockery of faith by a culture that no longer trusts the church. As I watched him participate in the lives of those who used him, I saw the heart of Christ embracing a world that rejected, mocked, and crucified him. Like Christ, the priest endures a soul-wrenching Gethsemane as he considers letting the cup pass from him. A glimpse of true faith inspires him as he walks forward into the darkness of vengeance and the light of God.

As the credits rolled, I sat quietly in the theater, considering how this priest helped me to behold the Lord on His way to the cross. Three voices behind me began to chatter, “That is the worst film ever!” Yes. It is terrible and wonderful, and I am speechless before the grace of God.

Wondrous grace is not simply an idea. It is embodied in the life and death of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter reminds us that “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (2:24). Adam’s Apples (2005) pictures the mystery of the suffering servant in the body of Father Ivan Fjeldsted. As he leads ex-convicts on the road to redemption, he bears their suffering in his own body. The doctor is baffled by his strange, life-threatening ills, but Ivan credits them to his battle with the devil. Fighting the evil in the hearts of men brings an unexplainable hope to bear on their redemption.

The film opens with ex-convict and Neo-Nazi Adam Pederson entering rehabilitation under the care of Father Ivan. The kind pastor explains that residents must complete a project during their stay. Adam mockingly plans to bake an apple pie. As it turns out, his project taps the very depths of human rebellion against God.

Through repeated acts of violence, Adam seeks to break Ivan’s joy and faith. He replaces the crucifix hanging in his room with a picture of Hitler. Ivan responds with optimism for Adam’s transformation. The kinder Ivan is, the more Adam seeks to crush him. Even as Ivan bears Adam’s cruel attacks, we discover that Ivan also has experienced an entire life of excruciating pain. The ongoing confrontation between Adam and Ivan explores the unregenerate heart coming face to face with unexplainable grace. Ivan enters into Adam’s brokenness even to the point of almost losing his faith. This complete identification with Adam’s fallen condition confronts me with the mystery of suffering that is rooted in Christ. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). In the end, Adam’s Apples is a comedy in the truest sense of the word, a reversal of fortune. This reversal brings us face to face with the wonder and power of unyielding love.

In various ways, these films reveal the hope that passes through death and into life. They remind me that the Lenten journey is not a morbid fascination with suffering and death, but a path of reflection that is never separated from the hope of resurrection in Christ Jesus. Fasting and other Lenten disciplines expose both our broken places and our hope for healing. This season of penitence becomes a way that opens our lives more fully to the depths of grace in Christ. In beholding the passion of Christ afresh, we also behold the promise of life eternal and the freedom of love that reaches beyond all our boundaries—even death.

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