I am from a family of four boys. Usually around this time of year when we were growing up two of us would be given the task of getting the family Christmas tree down from the attic. For us this was no small feat. The tree was set in a large and heavy cardboard box. Our main technique in regards to this task was shuffling the box to the top of the stairs, putting the front edge over the top step, lifting up the back of the box and then just letting it go! The box would noisily slide down and come to a solid thump against the wall at the bottom of the stairway. We would then wedge it out the doorway and into the hall. This annual rite of retrieval gives an adequate portrayal of how this poor tree was treated over the years!
Often, when we think of movies with a faith theme we tend to envision movies that portray the glory or triumphant struggle of faith but there are also movies that explore the other side – the reality of sin and its consequences.
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford” is one such film I believe. It is not necessarily an “easy” movie to watch precisely for this reason. It is a film that explores the psychological and spiritual landscape of sin and its effects. Within the movie there are many amazing scenes of fall and winter landscapes which visually portray the stark inner landscapes of the film’s characters … landscapes that have been deadened and made barren by violence and sin.
Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt, is not romanticized in this movie. He is presented as a fully complex character – extremely violent, a killer, yet human and full of paranoia near the end of his life. Robert Ford (played by Casey Affleck) – the man who would assassinate James – is also presented in the complexity of his humanity. He does not come off as a hero nor is he meant to. Both characters are men fully caught up in the twisting and disfiguring reality of sin and violence.
There is a telling scene near the end of the movie where James and Ford are sitting together in a room of James’ home in St. Joseph, Missouri. The house is quiet and James is staring out the window. He says, “I go on journeys outside my body and look at my red hands and angry face and I wonder where I have gone wrong. I’ve been becoming a problem to myself.” Ford is in a stunned silence. He does not have a response to this admission of James. He departs the room and James continues to stare out the window.
It is, I believe, a poignant portrayal of the affect of sin in ones life. In sin, we become problems to ourselves. Problems that we, on our own, can neither solve nor riddle our way through. We are too twisted, too ineffectual and too lost. We stand in the need of grace.
The first reading for this coming Sunday is taken from the Book of Wisdom. The first verse of the reading says this, “Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.” (Wisdom 11:22) In the Gospel reading we are given the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). In the story we are told that Jesus is passing through Jericho and Zacchaeus – a short man – has climbed a tree in order to see the controversial rabbi. When Jesus comes to the place where Zacchaeus is, he looks directly up at the man and says, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”
When I hold these two verses together I find myself envisioning a common cinematic technique – the movement from a grand scene of the universe step by step to a particular place and moment in our world. The full universe to our galaxy to our solar system past the moon to earth through the clouds to the Middle East to the Holy Land to Jericho to the street to our Lord looking up at this short man in a tree. From the Lord who views all creation as a grain of sand to Zacchaeus in the tree – it is the movement of grace. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”
As soon as our Lord says this, we are told that the other people began to grumble. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, he is a man caught up in the barren landscape of sin and violence and the others know this. He is a sinner, let us not kid ourselves, we must neither romanticize this man before the advent of grace in his life nor reduce him to a funny little children’s cartoon character. We must see him for who he is, acknowledge the violence of the system he represents and recognize the very real need in which he, himself, stands. (Maybe an equivalent to our day which might bring all this out for us it to imagine our Lord deciding to go and dine at the house of Bernie Madoff.)
But something new has now happened! Zacchaeus has been a problem to himself, a problem in which he has been trapped and lost, but now, in this moment of encounter with Christ, he does something different. We are told that Zacchaeus stands there in the very midst of the grumbling and he proclaims to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” In the encounter with Christ a new way is found! The starkness of sin, violence and separation is broken through! The problem that we become to ourselves through sin is broken through!
“And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” In sin, humanity turns in on itself; we become problems to ourselves – a problem that we, on our own, have no hope of solving. There is a depth to our brokenness that only God can answer. It is in the gift of grace, the encounter with Christ, that a new way is found … for each and every one of us.
|“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugene Burnand|
Recently I was asked to list some good books written by Catholic authors. The names that immediately came to my mind were Georges Bernanos, Flannery O’Connor, Shusaku Endo and Graham Greene. Each of these authors wrote fiction and each one in his or her own way courageously delved into the psychology of sin, grace and faith. These authors did not seek to present faith in simplistic black and white categories and neither did they need to explain away the struggles and doubts of life. Rather, each author was able to present the reality of grace found within the very struggles, doubts and even times of darkness that can comprise moments in life that we all experience.
In many ways, their writings mirror the very gospel passage that we are given this third Sunday of Easter (Jn. 21:1-19). In this resurrection appearance we are told that Peter and six other disciples went fishing on a boat in the Sea of Tiberias. Seven disciples in a boat – a concise symbol of the Church. It was night. Christ has not yet appeared to them. They were relying on their own self-sufficiency and their own ability to catch the fish but (we are told), they caught nothing. When we rely solely on ourselves then we remain in the darkness of night and we catch nothing, the work is futile.
When it was already dawn … Jesus was seen standing on the shore, yet not recognized. Whenever Christ comes to us the darkness already begins to flee. It is helpful to note that Christ does not need to consult our calendars. Christ comes to us when he so chooses and it is in that moment that the dawn begins to break.
Probably with a bit of a smile and fully aware of his disciples’ exercise in futility the risen Lord slyly asks, Children … have you caught anything to eat? No, they admit and then upon his instruction they cast their nets again and make a great haul of fish.
John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is the first to realize it is the Lord. John was the one who leaned his head on the breast of the Lord at the last supper, John was the one who stood by the cross of the Lord and did not run away. John is the one whose heart is attuned and attentive to the beating heart of the risen Lord. Yet, John did not hide within his realization, only to enjoy it for himself, rather he turned in respect to Peter – the “rock”, the one on whom the Lord said he would build his Church – and said, It is the Lord.
Peter, continually surprising – ancient, yet always surprising – in his eagerness and love for the Lord jumps out of the boat and into the water and swims to shore! The Lord feeds his friends and then he has this wonderful exchange with Peter. Three times, the Lord asks Peter; do you love me? Three times Peter responds “yes” and the Lord instructs him to feed and tend his sheep.
Why did the Lord give this command and why specifically did he entrust Peter with this task? Peter had denied the Lord, Peter had run away and now the Lord is entrusting his very flock to this man? What had changed? What had changed is that now Peter had accepted love. Where before he had relied on his own strength of faith – Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death. (Lk. 22:33) – now Peter, after his denial, can only hold on to the love of the Lord. Peter’s heart, healed by the light of Easter, had come to truly understand and grasp the words of that beautiful Lenten hymn; What wondrous love is this? Peter had accepted the love of the risen Lord and now Christ says to him; feed my sheep.
The Gospel does not need to explain away the weakness of the human heart nor the struggles and doubts of life. Rather, the Gospel proclaims the amazing truth that grace has entered into our very human and limited and sinful reality. The Lord is risen! He does not deny our humanity, rather he fulfills it through love and friendship!