“They say that miracles happen out here.”
There is a beautiful moment in The Way, a 2010 film Directed by Emilio Estevez, where Tom (Martin Sheen), following the loss of his wife and son, makes a decision to complete a journey his late son only had a chance to start. Setting off with no training, few provisions and little in the way of purpose and direction, we see him decidedly and firmly exit the door, plant his feet, and start off in the wrong direction on the popular Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Only to recognize his need to correct course.
The Way of Jesus
In the third chapter of The Gospel of John, “John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ As I wrote in a previous blog in this space, as this passage foretells the Christmas Story what we find is a deep, contextualized concern for a discussion of “repentance.” According to Craig Keener, a Christian scholar and theologian, a common understanding of repentance in the ancient Greco-Roman world would have been a change of mind or matter of thought. In its Judeo-Christian usage, the idea of repentance signified rather a complete change in direction, which is more a matter of sight than thought. It is about the ways in which we see God, the world and ourselves.
Speaking to this same context, the Gospel of Matthew chapter 3 speaks about baptism through water, which in the ministry of john the Baptist is this matter of repentance. The writer of Matthew then contrasts this with an emphasis on another type of baptism- fire and spirit (verse 11). The use of fire and spirit seems to indicate two unique and complimentary aspects of Jesus’ ministry- one is salvific (spirit), the other sanctifying (refining). This is the direction John the Baptist desires his audience to turn towards, in the way of Christ’s transformative work.
What I love about this moment of course correction in the film is that it accents the fact that Tom has to come to terms with the idea that he has no real idea what he is doing, and even less idea about where he is headed. This is what the darkness reminds us of, is our lack of control and our dependence on something bigger than ourselves. Here he is simply acting out of a moment of need and a simple prodding of his spirit to do something that feels necessary and important to healing and reconciliation regarding this disconnect that he feels between the life he once controlled and the life that sits outside of his control. And like the idea of repentance that we find in John the Baptist and the Gospels, the film uses the fact that Tom is an eye doctor to open up a necessary metaphor for this journey of learning “see God, the world and ourselves more clearly,” which in the Advent season begins with hope and is made real through the kind of faith that brings both joy and peace.
Before he embarks on this journey, in this moment of loss and grief we find Tom sitting in a Church attempting to reconcile what has happened with his idea of faith in something more hopeful and just. We hear the priest lean over and ask Tom if he would like to pray with him. Tom’s stark answer, which he accentuates later on in this journey, is both stark and also honest as a pure witness to his pain and grief, his feeling of being out of control. “What for,” he says, echoed later in his insistence that he is not a deeply religious man. And yet it is this unexpected spiritual quest that reforms this what for into a “what if” as he embarks on the Way. And this what if becomes the foundation for the possibility of hope and faith renewed in the midst of the darkness he carries.
We come to learn that there was a pre-existing strain in the relationship between him and his son, a difference in the way they view the world. He doesn’t understand his son, and his son remains exasperated about how short sighted his father’s view of the world is. And when Tom’s son declares his decision to get on a plane and see the world it leaves the two of them at both a figurative and geographical distance.
This pilgrimage is a way of bridging that distance, of coming to peace with both their broken relationship and his broken view of God, the world and himself. What he doesn’t expect and can’t foresee is the transformation that awaits him on The Way. which arrives more as a reformation than a reclamation. The old giving way to the new. This is what it means to see differently, to be transformed through repentance.
Peace and the Virtue of a True Pilgrim
On the fourth Sunday in advent we light a candle that represents Peace. We enter Advent in the HOPE (first candle) our FAITH will endure, and this faith is what allows us to find JOY in the darkest of places and PEACE in the promise of what awaits us on Christmas day. This is a peace that transcends our understanding and our experiences, peace that arrives as a gift and which invites us on this pilgrimage of our own.
One of the key questions of this film then is, “what makes a true pilgrim.” There is a pretty incredible scene in the middle of the film where we see Tom and the group of travellers he meets on The Way, all of them travelling this road with their own baggage in tow, pondering this question. Is a true pilgrim required to ask for more burdens and look for more suffering? Or is a pilgrim someone inspired to take this journey because of the suffering we already know? Or is a pilgrim simply one who embarks on The Way from wherever it is that we find ourselves, be that seekers, the sick, those looking for change and to grow, those looking for inspiration, or those dealing with grief and loss?
At the heart of this question lies an even deeper question. Are each of us then defined by the baggage we carry? This is unfortunately how we often approach the idea of faith. We live in constant comparison to others, and because of this we live under the judgment both of what we have done and what is being redeemed. Our stories define our worth. What The Way submits is a different way of seeing. As pilgrims we are not defined by our baggage, but by a promise of transformation. We are then judged not by what we have done or left undone, but by our need. And what we find in our places of need is the necessary gift of hope, faith, joy and peace. These are the transformative pieces that define us as people on The Way. When we judge ourselves we are left with unforgiveness, a lack of reconciliation and a hopeless notion precisely because we are forced to compare ourselves to the lives of others. When we allow ourselves to be judged by God, we find forgiveness, reconciliation and hope precisely because we no longer need to compare ourselves to the lives of others. This is the freedom that comes from being pilgrims on the way together, each submitting ourselves to our need for transformation.
These are the same questions that we ask when we follow Jesus on The Way. The truth is that the call of John the Baptist is to all with ears to hear and from wherever it is that we find ourselves and with however heavy or light or condemning our baggage is. Entering The Way is primarily about seeing in a different direction than the one we are currently on. It assumes that this is something we need, and it promises that this new way of seeing God, the world and ourselves will bring true transformation to even the darkest of places, even when we can only see what’s right in front of us. What matters is the direction we are walking in, not that we have arrived. Are we moving towards hope or away from it. Are we being defined by the present or by this declaration that we can live as transformed people.
For Tom, his change in direction brings him to the possibility of healing and reconciliation. Coming to the foot of the cross, he finds peace in the end once again within the walls of a church. It’s a beautiful and freeing moment where we see him finally fully broken and vulnerable, open to what The Way has to teach him as a forgiven, fully reconciled and hopeful child of God. And it is this moment that frees him to reconcile with his son at the ocean side by spreading his ashes at the final, declarative point of this journey. Not as a way of saying we arrived and been transformed, but as a way of saying we live in the promise of this transformation now even though we are still being made new every single day.
The Peace of Christmas
Christmas is about calling us to see the world differently, to see in a different direction than we currently are in the midst of the darkness. It is about moving towards the gradual illumination of the light in the darkness with whatever our baggage happens to be in tow. It is about finding hope, and choosing to hope in faith.
As Tom’s son says, “you don’t chose a life, you make one.” The foundation for this truth is that what gives us the desire and strength to live is hope. And hope, faith, joy and peace, all of the virtues that Advent represents, are gifts. This is what it is to celebrate the birth of Christ, to declare the gift of hope, faith, joy and peace that imposes itself even into the darkest of places. In Christ God entered into our experience and is walking The Way before us, ahead of us and with us every step of the way.