Sermon for January 26th, 2020
Psalm 22:1-5 (OT p. 500)
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
Isaiah 41:8-10 (OT p. 669)
8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; 9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; 10 do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
Faith & Film VIII: The Two Popes
Three Minute Film Synopsis
In February of 2013, Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the worlds largest Christian denomination, resigned from his office. This came as a bit of a surprise to most people--both inside and outside the Catholic church--since the last time a Pope resigned of his own free will was in the year 1294. In the same year, the college of cardinals elected a new pope to fill the vacancy: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian, and the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere. He chose to be called Pope Francis, and is the current reigning Pope. His predecessor, Benedict, took the title "Pope Emeritus" and continues to reside in Vatican City, making this the first time in centuries that we have two men alive authorized by their church to wear the white papal outfit; two men who are addressed by their followers as "Holy Father" and in short, two popes.
Those are the historical facts around which this film is structured, as it tells the story of Benedict and Francis, and their relationship and interactions with each other in the years leading up to Benedict's resignation and Francis' ascension. The story itself is pretty speculative, although the writers of the film have used writings and interviews from each man to construct a lot of the dialogue between them.
There are also frequent flashbacks to Francis' young adulthood and career as a priest and Bishop in Argentina.
Breaking My Own Rule?
When we first started doing this film series every year, I made a rule for myself that I would never choose films that were overtly Christian. There are a lot of movies out there that are written by Christians, for Christian audiences, about Christian themes. Some of them are good enough, although most are pretty bad, but in any case I was more interested in teaching all of us how to recognize spiritual and biblical themes in *unexpected* places, places outside of the walls of the church, outside of our Christian bubble.
So why this film, which seems inescapably religious by the very nature of the story and the characters? Well, first of all, it's really good. And it's actually not made by Christians for Christians--the director, the screenwriter, and both of the principal actors are all Hollywood insiders, which usually means they aren't Christian insiders (although Jonathan Pryce, the actor who plays Pope Francis, was raised Presbyterian!). And while the story centers around two well known Christians, the Popes, they are also the two Christians who seem to attract the most curiosity and attention from non-Christians. So really, I think this is the rare story about Christians, told by non-Christians attempting to understand what Christianity is really all about. I think if were' honest, we're all still trying to figure out what Christianity is all about, too.
An Acceptable Offering
In the Book of Genesis, the two brothers, Cain and Abel, are polar opposites, rivals both struggling to win the acceptance of God and people around them. They each make an offering to God, and the smoke from Abel's offering goes up to heaven, while the smoke from Cain's offering is blown downward.
There's a scene in the film where Benedict and Francis are sitting in the Sistine Chapel, admiring the beautiful art that adorns the walls and ceiling. Benedict confides in Francis, "the other night after prayer, I put out a candle, and instead of rising up, the smoke went down, like Cain's offering being rejecting by God. Do you notice such things?"
The implication here is that Benedict is Cain, and his offering--his papacy--is no longer a pleasing offering to God. Francis then, is Abel, and his offering--his papacy--will soon be accepted.
Acceptance and rejection is a theme that runs throughout the film, and not just in relation to God. Francis, even before he becomes the pope, is an extrovert, at ease around people, while Benedict is an introvert who prefers the company of books, and to eat dinner by himself. At one point, when they are riding together in a helicopter, Benedict asks Francis "This popularity of yours, is there a trick to it?" And Francis replies "I just try to be myself." To which Benedict shoots back, "Whenever I try to be myself, people don't seem to like me very much."
I think the film actually exaggerates Francis' popularity and Benedict's isolation somewhat. But it certainly strikes a nerve in its portrayal of our universal need for acceptance. We want people to like us. We want to God to like us. We want to be, in the words of our scripture passage from Isaiah, the one God chooses, the one God calls "friend." We want the reassurance that God is listening, always near us.
And yet, we all go through dark times where we echo the cry of Jesus from the cross (which he, in turn, is quoting from Psalm 22) "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
In the film, Benedict is portrayed as being in the midst of just such a time. He feels rejected by God and by people, but worse yet, he can no longer hear God's voice (I suspect this is an exaggeration, too, but it's a beautiful one that humanizes Benedict and makes him a lot more sympathetic).
We also get a glimpse of Francis' dark night of the soul, through flashbacks to his past, to a time when he feels he has betrayed his friends, his mentor, and the Jesuit order. He removed from his position and banished to a small town parish where he must learn to listen again--to both the people in his care, and to God's voice.
There's a fancy Latin term for those times when you feel like God isn't listening, God isn't anywhere to be found: Deus Absconditus. Deus means God, and Absconditus is where we get the word "abscond" from -- to go away, to leave in a hurry. But in Latin, Abscondere actually has a slightly different meaning; it means "hidden." God's promise to his people throughout the scriptures is that he will never leave us or forsake us. Although we may *feel* sometimes like God has abandoned us, it's usually the case that something has come between us and God, blocking our view, blocking our connection and making God, effectively *hidden* from us.
In the film, when young Francis is at his lowest point, he wanders alone across a desert plateau that is covered in mist and fog. God is hidden. Later, on that same plateau, he connects with some children, using his love for soccer to teach them about God. In that act of love and connection, the mist clears, the sun comes out, and God is no longer hidden.
For Benedict, it is in getting to know Francis, literally through the voice of Francis--through embracing all the things he has set himself against--that Benedict begins to hear the voice of God again, and comes to peace with his decision to resign the papacy.
A Miscellany of Themes
There are a ton of little details in the film that have spiritual and scriptural significance. I can't do them all justice, but want to run through just a few quickly:
- Weather: Mist isn't the only symbolic weather pattern in the film. In several scenes, we hear thunder, followed by rain. The Thunder represents Benedict (and God's wrath, God's judgment) while the rain that follows the thunder represents Francis (and God's cleansing mercy).
- Music: Whenever you hear the sound of a saxophone, it's a Francis scene. The saxophone is a modern instrument, an improvisational, emotional instrument. Whenever you hear the sound of the piano or the organ, that's a Benedict scene. The keyboard is a classical instrument, a traditional instrument, often associated with accuracy and technical precision.
- Tango: Film Clip #4 - Tango (0:15) Francis loves the tango--a popular dance in his native Argentina. At one point in the film, he spontaneously engages Benedict in a tango dance, somewhat against Benedict's will. The tango is a dance that is both rehearsed and improvised, where dancers are sometimes working together and sometimes against each other. The tango is symbolic of the relationship between Benedict and Francis.
- Bridges and Walls: There are plenty of images and conversations about building strong walls as the foundations of our faith...and blowing up walls with dynamite (you can guess who's who in that); About building bridges...and bridges too far.
- Finally, Pope Benedict, in the film wears a smart watch to monitor and improve his help. From time to time it will beep, and say the words "Don't Stop Now; Keep Moving." At the end of the film, we see that he has passed the watch on to Francis. Film Clip #5 - Keep Moving (0:10) In reality Benedict was far more progressive than Francis when it came to his use and embrace of Technology (Benedict was the first pope to have a Twitter account) and we see that in various ways in the film. But the symbolic part here is the message: "Don't stop; keep moving." In order for an elderly Pope to stay alive, he has to heed that voice. And of course, in order for the church to stay alive, we too must heed the voices that tell us "Don't stop; keep moving."
Keep changing. Keep growing.
Keep walking. Stay on the path, but keep walking down it.
Don't stop; keep moving.
And remember that God walks with us, seen or unseen..
God walks with us, through the thunder, the rain and the mist...
God walks with us, every step of the way.
Don't stop now; keep moving.