I just saw Calvary (2014). I rarely see movies. I got out of the habit because of all the violence and sex. And this movie, set in contemporary Ireland, is full of violence, while the backdrop is the sexual scandals that came to light not long ago about the Roman Catholic Church: its covering up of widespread child abuse, and its failure to stop priests who had abused children for years and years with impunity. The movie is hard to watch and hard to listen to in many places.
But it is really about being a Christian, which means being willing to follow Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death: the shadow of one’s own predicted murder, of continuing to live on in faith after tragedy, and of forgiveness to your father’s murderer. The priest who is the main character, the new widow, and the priest’s daughter who botched her suicide – he was married and widowed before his ordination – are each followers of Christ. Each has a different terrible valley to go through. In spite of everything, each eventually walks on, amazingly confident even in the midst of fear and pain and loss that “thou art with me” (Ps 23:4).
It made me think about the Christians who are being murdered by the ISIS forces right now – as we read this – in Iraq. How can they be so true to their faith? Where does their strength come from? Are our prayers a part of what strengthens them? How would I decide if given the options “convert to Islam, leave immediately, or be killed”?
I don’t know what I would do if that choice were offered to me, any more than the characters in the film know beforehand what they will do. I am not likely to be in a “deny Christ or die” situation like our sisters and brothers in Iraq or in Sudan or in any of the other places in this world where Christians are persecuted, more and more places, it seems, every week. But I often find myself in situations where being a follower of Jesus does not come easily, where it is not my default position or even my carefully considered position.
It made me think of Simon Peter, whom Satan desired to “sift” and for whom Jesus prayed so that he would have the strength to resist.
Simon Peter did not know beforehand that he would deny Jesus; even though he was warned that he would, he insisted he would not. He thought he knew what he would do when threatened with losing his life for the sake of following Jesus. He was wrong. He gave way to fear – raw, overwhelming, debilitating fear – and denied he even knew the man, denied him with a curse!
This is the same disciple who had been inspired to answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus goes on, making a play on the nickname he has given him: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”
It is true that Simon Peter was the leader and spokesman for the disciples in the Gospels and in the new Church in Acts. But his denial is just as much who he was and what his example means to those of us who would follow Christ. He went out and wept bitterly, but he did not commit suicide or run away and disappear. He was with the other disciples, who no doubt by this point knew of his denials, when they got the good news from the women who went to the tomb early in the morning of the third day. “The Rock” was evidently able to forgive himself and accept the forgiveness of his fellows because he was able to accept Jesus’ forgiveness. Maybe he really listened when Jesus was teaching about “seventy times seven” and all that (Matt. 18:22), maybe he heard the words of his Lord’s forgiveness from the cross. The legend says that Peter turned around on the Appian Way and returned to Rome to face crucifixion, upside down since he said he was not worthy to die in the same way as his Lord. Like Christians in our day, in Iraq and elsewhere, he was given the strength.