I must confess my heresies from the start: I see, on average, only one movie in a theater a year, and when I do, I fast. I have never understood munching popcorn and slurping soda while undergoing a catharsis, but I guess that says more about what I choose to watch than anything else.
Imagine my surprise then on seeing cast members of an outdoor “passion play” hawking popcorn and ice cream before the production began. Really, I thought, indulge in comfort food while taking in the bitter suffering and death of Jesus? Maybe Roman centurions and members of the Sanhedrin were selling snacks for that day’s entertainment, but I can’t stomach eating during the unfolding betrayal and brutality. Granted, I wasn’t very keen on attending in the first place, given the tendency for such things to be sensationalized and sentimentalized, but I went because the evening retreat schedule was cleared to encourage attendance. (I will admit to smirking at breakfast the next morning when a fellow retreatant described it as “Jesus on Prozac.”)
The problem, as I see it, is the stark dissonance between mild amusement and representations of human suffering, whether endured by an average person or by the Son of God. Does passion (suffering) beheld lead to compassion (suffering with) even for those accustomed to a steady flow of visual cruelty and violence, as most of us are these days? The authors of Compassion: Reflections on the Christian Life (Image Books, 2005) observe that human suffering usually “comes to us in a way and on a scale that makes identification practically impossible… the most obvious response is to invest no more energy in it than in brushing your teeth before going to bed” (54–55). Even for those whose faith is centered on the redemptive suffering of Jesus, it is difficult to feel a connection with the grinding afflictions of fellow humans near or far. Carl Sandburg, in his incendiary poem against revivalist Billy Sunday, “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter,” drew a sharp distinction between the financially-backed “peddler of a second-hand gospel” who ignored the suffering of people living in shanties and “this Jesus of Nazareth” who had “real blood” spurting in “red drops where the spear of the Roman soldier rammed in between the ribs.” Maybe we Christians have gotten so used to seeing depictions of the crucifixion that the shock factor and physicality of it is gone. And maybe we have gotten so used to focusing on Jesus’ hours on the cross that we fail to recognize them as the culmination of his whole ministry of taking on the suffering grief and sorrow of the afflicted ones he came to heal and make whole.
In this regard, nothing has been so powerfully corrective for me as the 2014 Irish film Calvary. Beginning with the words of St. Augustine—“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”—in white letters on a black screen, the film depicts the complexity of suffering a priest encounters during the final week of his life. The opening scene is set in the confessional booth where a parishioner vows to Fr. James (Brendan Gleeson) that he will kill him in a week. The parishioner vows to kill this good priest who has done nothing wrong in retaliation against a priest who made him suffer in silent agony through years of sexual abuse. The bad priest is now dead, and since murdering a bad priest does not make much of a statement, he has decided to take the life of a good priest free from guilt. The film goes on to explore not only the personal emotional strain with which Fr. James has to contend, but also the distress of others in his village who suffer from addictions, economic hardship, fear of death, sudden death, living an ongoing death, racism, repressed and expressed sexual passion, and meaninglessness. Life is heavy and weighted with grief for all.
At one point during the week, Fr. James decides to flee the village and go to Dublin, but after seeing a coffin about to be loaded on his flight, he decides to accept his fate. He returns to the village to face not only his own Calvary but those of others as well. When the fateful day arrives, he says in a phone conversation with a family member that people focus more on sins than on virtues. When asked what his greatest virtue is, he answers “forgiveness.”
Even though I watched the film on a small screen from my sofa, I am grateful I didn’t have a snack in one hand and a drink in the other. I had no idea how intensely the ending would affect me. My empty hands crossed at my chest as it heaved with sobs. My voice kept choking out “No!” as tears streamed down my cheeks. The ensuing scenes of those other souls continuing in suffering, indifference, and forgiveness contrast with Fr. James’s absence from the places he inhabited and link profoundly with Christ and his Calvary.
Writing in the Small Catechism about the Sacrament of the Altar, Luther advised that “fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training” for partaking in Jesus’ given body and shed blood in the holy meal. I grew up with this practice of fasting and continue to do so. It teaches me about “doing without” and puts me in solidarity with others who do so in a variety of circumstances, often not chosen. It forces me to hunger and thirst not only for food and drink but also for righteousness, recalling that those who do so will be filled (Matthew 5:6). It instructs me that the Lord desires fasting from the bonds of wickedness and the yoke of oppression on behalf of sharing food with the hungry, bringing in the homeless, covering the naked, and meeting the needs of the afflicted, so that light will rise in the darkness and gloom become as the noonday (see Isaiah 58:6–11). It reminds me that fasting is not just for Lent but year-round for Christ’s people who live in the way of his cruciform death and transforming resurrection. It points to the convergence of passion and compassion, of suffering and healing, of fasting and feasting, of partaking the flesh and blood of Jesus and being raised up to eternity on the last day (John 6:54)!
Joel Kurz is pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri.