You shouldn’t read this blog post. At least not until you see the film, “Of Gods and Men.”
Really, stop now if you intend to watch it and don’t want me to spoil it for you.
The movie tells the true story of French monks living in the hills of Algeria during the civil war in the 1990s. These Catholic men worked simply alongside their Muslim neighbors, responding to medical needs and providing other basic services. Wanting to push foreigners out, both the government forces and rebel groups threatened the monastic community, but the priests chose to stay—and ultimately lost their lives because of it.
The film is at once hopeful and tragic, peaceful and terrifying. The moments of beauty and solidarity are just as heartbreaking as those of brutality and fear. Some of my favorite scenes in “Of Gods and Men” take place on Christmas, and that’s why it seems appropriate for me to write about this film now, as the holiday is upon us.
“Of Gods and Men,” which might just be my favorite movie, has helped me rediscover—or even recognize for the first time—some important lessons about the Incarnation (God becoming human in the person of Jesus) that many of us may often miss.
“A happy night in Palestine”
In the slanted afternoon light of Christmas Eve, an old monk named Celestin hobbles around the chapel of the Tibhirine monastery, organizing candles for the evening Mass. He cheerily sings this hymn under his breath:God has prepared the earth like a cradle for His coming from above. This is the night, the happy night in Palestine. And nothing exists except the child, except the child of life Divine. By taking flesh of our flesh, God our desert did refresh and made a land of boundless spring.
Celestin’s joyous anticipation of the birth of Jesus reflects the Christian attitude we expect during the season. It is only natural for us to be happy as we welcome our Salvation, the God who took on flesh to dwell among us—as a little baby.
This point (that God came to us not through military strength or kingship, as was expected, but instead through poverty and childhood) is not missed by the monks. Processing into the dark chapel to begin the Christmas service, the monks sing this hymn, and the youngest monk, Christophe, gently places a figurine of the newborn Jesus into the manger scene.
This gesture, and the hymn that the monks sing together in unison, is a reminder of the humility and vulnerability that characterize Christmas. Often, we become so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ birth that we hardly recognize the very powerful lesson it tells us about the way God works: not through massive displays of power, but through the simplicity and poverty of His creation.
The holiday of Christmas, the monks help us realize, is an acknowledgement that God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and love will be achieved in very unexpected ways, by and through people about whom we usually don’t give a second thought. Born to a stigmatized mother in a forgotten town, his life threatened by a power-hungry king, Jesus was the definition of “marginalized.” Most people didn’t care about him, and those that did wanted him dead. Yet, it was he who became the most important bearer of God’s transformative love. No wonder the monks exude an aura of awe as they sing quietly in dim candlelight.
“Take new lodgings in my heart”
The monks understand quite well, however, that the Incarnation is not simply a one-time event that happened two thousand years ago. It is also a cosmic mystery (a faith-filled assertion that God imbues all of creation and can be known in this world) that must be embodied and internalized by humanity.
Sitting around their meeting table a few weeks after Christmas, the monks discuss whether or not to flee Algeria, to escape the violence engulfing the country. The abbot of the monastery, Christian, reflects on the events that occurred directly before their Christmas Mass, when armed terrorists stormed the compound, looking for medicine to heal their wounded comrades. The encounter had shaken the priests, and woke them up to their own vulnerability and defenselessness. Christian explains to his fellow monks that the way to respond to the violence they face is by participating in the Incarnation:I’ve often thought of that time … that time when Ali Fayattia and his men left. Once they were gone, all we had left to do was to live. And the first thing we did was … two hours later … we celebrated the Christmas Vigil and Mass. It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did. And we sang the Mass. We welcomed that child who was born for us … absolutely helpless and … and already so threatened. Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks. The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day. We had to resist the violence. And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It’s to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another. And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are. The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity. The mystery of the Incarnation remains what we are going to live. In this way, what we’ve already lived here takes root … as well as what we’re going to live in the future.
Christian reminds us that the Incarnation is not fully achieved if we don’t allow the mystery to unfold in our own ordinary activities. By recognizing that God is born within us and in all creation, we naturally begin to live differently. We more consciously try to embody the traits exhibited by the child, Jesus: his trust and humility.
Christian’s speech reflects the sentiment of one of my new favorite Advent songs, “The Dream Isaiah Saw.” I can imagine the monks of Tibhirine praying these words, as I have done during the last few weeks:Little child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Life redeemed from fang and claw.
“We do not see your face”
When we celebrate Christmas, we tend to feel joyful as Celestin did, ignoring the heavy stuff and leaving it for the solemn, rainy months of Lent. Jesus’ suffering and death seem far from our minds. Even if we do acknowledge the “fang and claw” that characterized Jesus’ time on earth and still plague our world, we perceive Jesus’ Incarnation as an event that somehow makes all that misery and pain go away.
But the monks help us understand that Jesus’ suffering—and our own—is inextricably linked with Christmas, a fact that we are no doubt more aware of this year, as we still contemplate the horror of the Sandy Hook massacre and violence against children.
As they finish the Christmas Eve hymn in the fading candlelight, the monks’ chant takes on a somber tone:This is the night, the long night in which we grope, and nothing exists except this place, except this place of ruined hope. By stopping in our adobe, God, as with the bush, did forebode the world on which fire would fall.
Jesus’ eventual suffering always lingers in the background of his birth. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat expresses so beautifully in a piece about the school shooting and Christmas, “the rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.”
The Incarnation is not about ridding the world of suffering. Instead, it’s about solidarity, about staying.
God became human to share in our pain, to struggle alongside us. God embraced our vulnerability and weakness in order to be intimately close to us. To me, that’s a much more powerful, loving action than if God, from a high seat in Heaven, simply improved our humanly affairs without actually engaging in them.
The monks knew that living the Incarnation was most importantly about solidarity, even if it meant their eventual death. They, like Jesus in the desert, were tempted to save themselves and leave behind the poor and marginalized they’d come to love. But ultimately they made the hard choice to stay.
By deciding to remain in Algeria, the monks didn’t choose “dying” over “living.” They simply decided to finish the work God had called them to do, with the understanding that either their living or their dying would be done in the service of God.
They, like Jesus, didn’t seek out death. Jesus didn’t say, “Ok, it’s time to die! Now someone find me a cross!” Rather, he remained with the people, loving them in a radically simple way, for as long as he could. As we see in the Gospels, Jesus did the will of the Father, whether that led him to walk down with Mary Magdalene in the valleys of Galilee or up the rocky mountain to Calvary. His living and dying were offered up equally to God.
Jesus’ example of self-sacrificing solidarity, and his call for us to emulate it, can be a hard thing for us to swallow. We, like Christophe, whisper to the darkness, “I’m afraid! Help me…” We wonder if God is truly good, if He allows us to face such uncertainty and struggle.
Douthat again offers some wisdom that we, and Christophe, may be comforted by: “The New Testament… seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.”
Douthat, and our whole Christian faith for that matter, argues that the experience of suffering does not imply God’s absence, and it is not an indication that God is not “good.”
Instead, we know that God is good because God is Emmanuel. Because God is with us, just as He is with Christian, who walks along the water and is brought to tears by the recollection of this hymn:We do not know your mystery, Infinite Love, but You do have a heart, for You seek the Prodigal son and hold against Your breast the troublesome child, which is the world of mortals. We do not see your face, Infinite Love, but You do have eyes, for You see through the oppressed, and look upon us with a shining gaze…
*Special thanks to a good friend and numerous Jesuits who helped me to reflect on the wisdom of this film.
The title of this post comes from another of my favorite songs, Christus Paradox, which also inspired points I made in this post.