Letter from the Vicar (April 2009)
Many of you know that I love going to the cinema – and not just to eat popcorn. I often go on Monday evening, my day off. Recently I’ve seen the three films which scooped up the most prizes at the Oscars. I’m thinking of “Slumdog Millionaire”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Reader”.
Each one, I think, has something to teach us at this time of year when we move from Lent into Holy Week and then Easter. “Slumdog Millionaire” is a story of the triumph of hope in the face of literally overwhelming odds. The hero Jamal achieves things which on the face of it are impossible to achieve – he wins the millionaire grand prize and he gets the girl, Latika. Much of what he accomplishes he does so by sheer chance, at least to the outward eye. But in truth the question of how he comes to win his prize and his lady are provided in the film – “it is written”. It is his destiny.
This reminds us of the fact that Jesus had a destiny. For Him also, “it is written”. The story used at the start of Lent is the Temptations. In that story the devil tempts Jesus to step aside from the path, to take the easy way. Three times he is tempted and three times he replies, “it is written”, quoting Scripture to rebut the Devil. Jesus has a destiny and he will not be misled or distracted from it. His destiny is the cross where he shows us the boundless love and forgiveness of God. But the cross is not the end. His destiny takes him through suffering to the joy of the resurrection. Just as Jamal suffers squalor, indignity, betrayal – even by his brother – pain (he is tortured at one point), so too Jesus suffered all these things – and worse. But in the end there was victory, the victory of the Resurrection.
So “Slumdog Millionaire”. But what can Brad Pitt teach us about Lent, Holy Week and Easter?! Well in his film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, we see a lifetime in reverse, a life literally lived backwards. But as with many whole life stories we see a thread of salvation running through his story which in some ways parallels that most classic life salvation story, the story of the Prodigal Son. Despite being old when his life begins Benjamin is brought up in a loving home – an old people’s home. Eventually, like the Prodigal, he breaks away and has a succession of adventures. But back home is where there is love, first in the form of his adoptive mother Queenie, and then the love of his life, Daisy. With her he finds true happiness. But for what the film depicts as good motives, he leaves her, only for him to be found by her again when he is a child and is returned once more to the old people’s home. At the moment before Benjamin dies, Daisy claims to have seen in his eyes that he still remembered her.
The theme of Benjamin Button, the return to love, the return to home, is found in many films and stories. It is the story of the Prodigal Son. In that wonderful parable, which Charles Dickens described as the greatest short story of all time, the love the prodigal returns to is clearly identified with God. He strays from God’s love, but eventually returns home to God’s love. All of us stray from God’s love, to a lesser or greater extent, but our Christian belief is that that God is waiting, wanting to welcome us home.
Finally,“The Reader”. This film is a much more complex story, emotionally, than either of the two other ones. It deals with the question of how to deal with guilt and shame. In this case the guilt of a terrible crime and the shame of illiteracy. It also deals with the incomprehensibility of the terrible things people have done to other people. It doesn’t reach any easy conclusions.
Lent is a time when Christians bring to to the forefront of our minds subjects like sin, shame and guilt. But we believe that we can receive forgiveness and a new start because we have a loving and forgiving God ready to open his arms to us. And that is precisely what he did in Jesus. In his life, in his death on the cross where he literally opened his arms, Jesus demonstrates the limitless love and mercy of God.
The love and forgiveness we see in Christ is not an easy love and forgiveness. There is no easy way for Him because human sin is complex and not easily forgiven. The life and above all the cross of Jesus teaches us that. Nevertheless we can be sure that no matter what we have done, what we have been, where we have been, God will forgive us in Christ and welcome us home.