So I was watching Calvary, and it got me thinking about atonement…
What can a good priest do in a broken Church but die?
Calvary is a “Christian” film for days when the light has been extinguished, when hope is lost. A good man dies with a broken heart, for a broken community, and a broken institution. The title “Calvary” could not be more apt – like the gospel narrative, this movie marches toward Golgotha with little question as to what will happen, only teasing who will do it.
What happened at Calvary is what happens in this film – one person takes on the sins of many. The world of the movie provides a thought provoking look at what feels like stale Christian doctrine – that Christ bore the burden of our sin. The church has traditionally interpreted this transactionally rather than relationally, to our great detriment.
Gleeson’s “good priest,” Father James, bears the sins of his whole community throughout the film. Everyone in the film is suffering on account of sin; sometimes their own, sometimes from someone else’s, and sometimes from institutionalized sin like predatory banking or child-predators in the Church. Father James absorbs it all, even while crumbling under its weight. At times he can actually absorb it in a way that lifts them from despair, but mostly they transfer their own shame onto him and hate him for it. This is the part of calvary we overlook in our atonement theology, that Christ doesn’t just wipe clean the slate but also lays bear on his body all the sin, more often societal, that we’d rather not see, and we hate him for it.
Ultimately one man can’t hold that much. Such an act killed Christ himself, after all. And since Father James is not Christ, he has his own sins to reckon with as well. In reconciling with his daughter he models the way out of the despair of sin, but also instigates the redemption of the film. Bearing the weight of the Church’s sin kills him, but the final shot of the film, (his daughter willingly facing his killer,) offers hope for redemption even for the killer of the innocent one, the one in the most pain. I could nearly hear the words, “Forgive him – he knows not what he does.” Father James does not literally resurrect, yet there is Resurrection-life in this unheard act of grace from Fiona.
Outside of Christ, no one person can bear the sins of so many. Perhaps that’s what the church is meant to do, collectively, as the Body. Until it does, we pray for our good priests, our exemplars of Christ ordained and otherwise, and hope they don’t die out.
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