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Note: this post contains spoilers
For a film that is so visually beautiful and rich in period detail, an atmosphere of quintessentially 20th century totalitarianism hangs around Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence.
This film – an exhaustingly tense and penetrating treatment of moral and spiritual pain – is about a series of specific events at a specific time in a specific place, but it is also about something much bigger. As is so often the case, the universal is accessed through the particular. Silence centres on how a Jesuit priest caught up in the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan deals with the challenge that physical pain – both his own and that of his flock – poses to his faithfulness to God – and the challenge that God’s silence poses to him.
But – and here comes the spoiler – he fails. He avoids the martyrdom that he envisaged and the blood that he says is the seed of the church, and he does so by denying Christ and trampling on a carved image of the cross.
In its central figure (though not, it should be stressed, in all its figures) the film shows how pain triumphs over piety, the body over the mind, and how our greatest fear wins out against our greatest love.
Moreover, it does not try to soften this by an appeal to heaven making it all okay in the end. The idea of ‘paradise’ plays an important role in the film, but it is certainly not redemptive, let alone salvific.
What lifts it from unremitting bleakness, however, is the idea that hangs like an ungraspable mist in the background: our betrayal is not the final word because Christ did not betray. The priest’s denial is not ultimate because, before him, Christ, in whom we can somehow live, underwent the same trial to the end. In short, it is precisely the cross that permits the priest to deny the cross.
Silence never denies the weakness and failure that haunts and breaks human life. It refuses any cheap consolation or redemption. Indeed, it hardly offers any expensive redemption. But it does pose the question, asked by one of the film’s more obviously flawed characters, “Where is the place of a weak man in a world like this?” And it implies that the final answer to the question lies less in overcoming our weakness than in acknowledging it.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. A longer version of this article first appeared here
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
The 12th day of Christmas falls on 6 January this year. In the Christian calendar the day is known as Epiphany, marking the visit to the young Jesus by… well, by whom?
We sometimes sing ‘We three kings of Orient are’. But Matthew calls them ‘Magi’, not kings. Magi were a number of things, but they were certainly not kings. Nor, probably, should we think of them as ‘wise men’.
By the first century, the term ‘Magi’ referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. So, think ‘magicians’. Think horoscope fanatics. Think those who claim to tell the future by reading stars, tea leaves, and chicken gizzards. In the Bible, think of the magicians in Egypt at the time of Moses, or the interpreters of dreams in the book of Daniel, or Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8.
So, for an early reader of Matthew’s gospel, the Magi aren’t just Gentiles (significant though that is); they represent the height of Gentile idolatry and religious wizardry. But it’s these star-gazing, horoscope-writing, would-be magicians who are the heroes in the story. They shouldn’t be there. They don’t worship the right God or adhere to the right religion or belong to the right race. And yet they are there.
It’s possible, then (according to Mark Allan Powell, Chasing the Eastern Star, Westminster John Knox, 2001) that we should see the Magi as bungling astrologers or sorcerers – more like the Three Stooges than the Three Wise Men! They go to the wrong place. They speak to the wrong person. When they give their gifts, it’s gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were elements used in their magic. And yet, by a mysterious combination of God’s loving grace and their faithful seeking, they are there – as models of seeking Jesus, believing in Jesus, and worshipping Jesus with what they have. God used what they knew – the stars – and gave them what they didn’t know – the Scriptures – to bring them to Jesus.
The story of the Magi shows us that God revealed the truth about Jesus to a bunch of pagan fools while those who were clever enough to work it out for themselves missed out. Their story reminds us that God shows his strength in our weakness, his glory in our humility, his wisdom in our folly – to make it clear that everything comes from him and not from ourselves.
Let’s celebrate that this New Year.
Joseph… went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Yes, you read that right – ‘no guest room’. That’s how the revised New International Version translates Luke 2:7. It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that there is no mention of a stable or an inn, let alone an innkeeper, in the Christmas story.
Given that Joseph was returning to his home town, it’s highly unlikely he would not be able to find shelter there. Even allowing for the shame of a child conceived out of wedlock, hospitality codes meant that strangers could expect some welcome, let alone a member of the family expecting the birth of a baby. Moreover, that Jesus was born ‘while they were there’ suggests plenty of time to arrange suitable housing.
Luke uses the regular word for ‘inn’ when relating Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (10:34). The word used here, however, is the same one he uses for the ‘upper room’ of a house where the last supper took place (22:11). It refers to a lodging or guest room, usually part of a private house.
This, and the mention of the manger, fits what is known of peasant houses from this period. They typically had one room where eating and sleeping took place, with a lower section for animals. Mangers were often cut into the floor of the living accommodation. In some homes, a ‘guest room’ could be built on the flat roof or at the end of the house. Luke tells us that this room is already occupied, so Mary places the newborn child in the most comfortable place in the house – the manger in the main family room. It’s lowly, but more domestic than destitute.
Somewhat ironically, the effect of the stable scenes on our Christmas cards might be to distance Jesus from us, perhaps allowing us to forget that he was born as ‘one of us’. As it happens, the most striking feature of Luke’s account is its decided ‘ordinariness’, with Jesus born in the normal surroundings of an everyday peasant home.
To be sure, he is the ‘Saviour… the Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2:11), and yet he takes his place with us in the mundaneness of the everyday world. And the salvation he brings comes in the context of real life, and to people just like us.
The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’
While it has always been possible to make too much of Mary, it has been all too easy to make too little of her. Because, even if she is not an object of faith, she is an example of faith. And a very real example too.
Her story is elaborated in later Christian literature and art, with accounts of her own miraculous birth and childhood, accompanied by regular angelic visitations. Annunciation scenes sometimes portray Mary as reading Scripture or praying, or spinning purple thread for the temple veil – none of which is found in the gospels. Instead, like the fishermen and tax collectors who would be called, her heavenly encounter comes in the midst of everyday life – as an ordinary Galilean girl engaged to be married to Joseph. And, like the rest of us would be, she’s surprised and scared by the arrival of Gabriel.
Her response to his message is just as human, and wonderfully real. Faced with the increasingly amazing announcement – child, then son, then great, then Son of the Most High, then king, then eternal – Mary is frozen back at step one. A child? She’s young, but she’s not stupid; she knows how babies are made, and she knows she’s not been with a man. And so she says: ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ No deep theological question. No amazing insight. No request for a sign. And no objection: ‘I am the Lord’s servant… May your word to me be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:38).
It’s a staggering response. Her reputation would be at stake, and her husband-to-be might want nothing more to do with her. She will play out something of the scandal of the gospel in her very self, and yet consents to do so as a servant of the Lord. She believes the word that is spoken to her, even if she doesn’t fully understand it, and her trust exercises itself in submission.
Then, as her story goes on, faith and obedience will give rise to joyful singing and quiet reflection – all appropriate responses of ordinary, everyday servants of God since, at Christmastime and all times.
Political turmoil, celebrity scandal, shock-resignation… no, it’s not my review of 2016, but a snapshot of events eighty years ago.
Yes, eighty years ago this weekend Edward VIII rocked the nation – and the empire – by surrendering his throne for love.
His niece Elizabeth was just ten years old at the time, but his actions changed the course of her life. As the new Netflix series The Crown explores, she effectively became a new person overnight. No longer just ‘Lilibet’, but a daughter of the king, a future queen.
A December day, a king leaves his throne, a life is transformed.
And what of Mrs Simpson? Here was a woman whose life choices barred her from marrying the man she loved. Widely treated with suspicion and hostility, labelled forever with the name of one of her past mistakes, how must she have felt when she realised he really was going to give up everything – power, privilege, prestige – for her?
Did she feel guilt, horrified that it had come to this? Did she feel humbled, unworthy of such a sacrifice? Did she feel utterly secure, knowing that she was loved beyond all imagining?
How do you feel? Because of course, we’re all both Lilibet and Wallis, aren’t we? Jesus Christ, the King of kings left his throne, his majesty and his glory for love of us. Unlike Edward, of course, this King was not driven by earthly desires. He did not shirk his duty or abandon the path laid out for him. His love was not self-seeking, and did not ignore the counsel of his advisors, yet it did change everything.
He left his throne for us, whose life choices barred us from unity with him. And in doing so, he changed our destiny – making us joint-heirs to the throne, sons and daughters of the King, future rulers over a mighty kingdom.
A December day, a King leaves his throne, a world is transformed.
I don’t know how Wallis Simpson handled the new life she had been given, beyond the fact that this, her third marriage, did last. Elizabeth, however, has lived her new identity with faithfulness and dedication, inspired and sustained by her own love for the other King whose sacrifice of love changed not just her life, but her eternity.
The babe in the manger is a poignant reminder of who we are, and what King Jesus gave up for us.
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