One of the striking things about Jesus’ earthly ministry, was his stark realism about the people he was working with. When the crowds initially huddled around him to make him king, impressed by his outward signs, Jesus did not entrust himself to them, “because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). John Chrysostom notes that this is sign of Christ’s divinity, since only God can know the hearts of men: “He therefore needed not witnesses to learn the thoughts of His own creatures, and so He felt no confidence in them because of their mere, temporary belief.” Jesus was no sucker.
Recently watching John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary called this aspect of Jesus’ character to mind. Calvary tells the story of a parish priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), in a small community off the coast of Ireland. He’s confronted in the confessional by a local man, a victim of the horrifying sexual abuse at the hands of a clergyman, who tells him that within a week’s time, on Sunday, Father James is to meet him on the beach where the man is going to kill him. The man (who remains initially off-screen and nameless) says that he’s going to kill Father James, not because he’s a bad priest, but precisely because he is a good priest. That’s not the kind of thing people could ignore, anymore.
The rest of the film takes place in the remaining seven days as Father James struggles with his choice to either turn the man in (since the confessional seal does not apply to a future, unrepentant crime), run, or remain to minister to him, all set in the context of ministering the broken, wretched, sinful, and unrepentant people of the town. And unrepentant, they are. In a week’s time, Father James encounters adulterers, the violent, a serial murderer and cannibalist, pederasts, a self-absorbed, financial fatcat, cynical atheists, pornographers, and just about anything else you can imagine. And it is this aspect, among many others, that gripped me.
Father James is not a perfect priest. Some of the counsel he gives is quite inept, he curses, he drinks, and seems to look the other way on all sorts of sins, I’d probably think to say something about. All the same, Father James has a serious sense of vocation to give comfort and solace to the people of his parish in the various situations in which they find themselves. In doubt. In fear. Trapped in self-hate and depravity. Bitter apathy. Self-violation. It is to these that Father James came to give comfort and whom he could not abandon. Even as they mock him. Even as they attempt to bribe, cheat, and deceive him. Even as one–one who called him friend–threatens to kill him.
While grieved, Father James is not basically shocked. He is grieved, but looks at these people–his people–for what they are and he ultimately chooses to dwell among them all the same.
We have countless reasons to marvel at the Incarnation, the metaphysical mystery of the humiliation of the Son come in the flesh of a baby boy, of course. All the same, it is perhaps this dimension that has compelled me over the years. Jesus knew what was in man. He was not shocked or surprised at our sins, at our pettiness, our narcissism, and self-absorption. He wept over Jerusalem, but he knew why he came; he came for the dregs. To live, to breathe, to sweat, to laugh, to cry, and eventually, to die among them, so that they might one day live again with him.
The Incarnation is the good news of the God who knew what was in man, but came anyways.
Soli Deo Gloria