The Flesh of Christ
I just came back from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, a few miles from Salt Lake City. As a filmmaker, I really enjoy the chance to see some awesome movies which will be in theaters in the next year, and to network with other filmmakers. And there’s the added advantage of literally bumping into movie stars like Robert Redford, Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, Madmen’s Jon Hamm, Jack Black, Shirley McLaine, Lisa Kudrow from Friends, and Kevin Bacon. There is a lot of fame and glamour at Sundance, limos and expensive cars, elegantly dressed somebodies, and industry powerbrokers. But to tell you the truth I was more interested in the fact that we had several great snowstorms, and I love snow!
As I was flying home out of Salt Lake City, I looked down at the landscape beneath our plane. The city is surrounded on three sides by beautiful, snow-covered mountains, and low flatlands on the fourth side lead to the great Salt Lake. Getting that big perspective from on high, I could see why Brigham Young and his refugee Mormons migrated from the east coast and chose this place as a sanctuary for religious and political freedom. It was remote, protected by the mountains, but it also had fertile land to grow their own food for their survival. And when they saw the great Salt Lake, it reminded them of the Dead Sea of the Holy Land, on whose shores Jesus preached to so many people. The Mormons saw their new city as the new “promised land” where they could live faithfully as a community of followers of Jesus.
One of the most powerful films I saw at the festival was a documentary called Last Men in Aleppo. It was about three men who are members of the White Helmets, a group of volunteers (with white helmets) who risk their lives every day in the Syrian city of Aleppo and other cities under siege in that country. They rescue families who have been buried under tons of debris from barrel bombs and missiles that have been shot and dropped from Russian jets and drones in support of the government of Syria. The camera crews making the movie were embedded with them, jumping into their trucks as they rushed to the site of the latest bombing. The scenes were sometimes pretty horrifying as the White Helmets dug through the rubble and wreckage to retrieve dead babies, crushed human remains and body parts. At one point in the film one of the rescuers uncovers a foot, and they try to determine if it is from a woman or a man. You could see all the toes and the heel, ending with a small part of the ankle.
But thankfully, the White Helmets also saved many who were still alive under huge chunks of concrete and metal of the collapsed buildings. And all the while they had to keep watch on the skies above, because oftentimes the drones or the planes would come back in what is called a “double tap” to purposely kill these selfless rescuers while they were in the act of trying to save the victims of the initial attack. Dozens of White Helmet members have been killed in such moments.
It was hard not to shed a few tears watching the movie, and hard not to feel compassion for the innocent families who are caught in the devastation of the war in Syria. And of course it makes you wonder about our duty, the world’s duty to take care of those who flee for their lives from that wreck of a country. I was reminded of Pope Francis’ words: “Let us not forget that the flesh of Christ is in the flesh of the refugees: their flesh is the flesh of Christ.”
As we flew over the great Salt Lake, I looked down at the shore and the nearby foothills, and perhaps like Brigham Young, I imagined Jesus sitting on large rock and speaking to a crowd of people who were attentive to his every word. And behind him, in the steep cliffs of the rising mountains, I imagined the black holes of hundreds of caves, with no good way to get to them except by climbing straight up the cliffs. In Jesus’ time, it was in those caves that the militant Jewish Zealots found refuge in their bloody fight against the powers of their day, seeking power and prestige and riches. Within those caves they slept, ate, planned their attacks, and built their weapons. From where Jesus and his followers sat, they could hear the sounds of blacksmiths hammering metal into razor-sharp daggers and swords.
But further down the hill, Jesus spoke of a completely different approach. It wasn’t about weapons, and power, and force. His face was filled with light, his eyes revealed an inner peace, his body an expression of acceptance and compassion. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…blessed are the merciful, and the clean of heart, and the persecuted. And blessed, especially, are the peacemakers…for their reward will be great in heaven.
But somewhere in a remote cave of dimly lit, air-conditioned trailers, drone Zealotsstare at glowing video and data screens. They toggle their joysticks that control armed drones flying right above the desperate group of wannabe refugees listening to the small man sitting on a hill of rubble. Nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. All of them, sitting ducks.
COMMANDER: Cleared to engage. Target the man, and the crowd.
PILOT: Weapon systems on.
COMMANDER: Arm weapon
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
PILOT: Ready on the Blue missile
PILOT: Three, two,one. Rifle, rifle, rifle. Weapon away. Time of flight, 50 seconds.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
COMMANDER: Target is captured. The small man is down. His followers are extinguished. Mission is accomplished. Well done, Lieutenant.
PILOT: Thank you, sir.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven."
To most of the world, the words on the hillside were a joke. To be rich, you must be poor? To be powerful, you must be powerless? To be filled, you must hunger and thirst? To be wise is to be dumb? To be satisfied, you need nothing at all, except for Him? Really? It goes against all common sense. Who really wants to be poor? Who wants to be last instead of first? Who wants to suffer pain over pleasure? And everyone knows that might clearly is more rewarding than right. Isn’t it true that the real blessing is when you are strong, wealthy, safe and great?
But my heart keeps going back to the images of those men in Aleppo. We watched as one young man pulled two lifeless babies out of the debris of what was once an apartment house, tears streaming down his face. He looked exhausted, and despairing. And then from somewhere deep in the wreckage, he heard a faint cry. He immediately leaped to the task, hoisting heavy chunks of concrete blocking the path, digging through the mounds of debris with his bare hands with newfound energy and hope. And under a huge obstacle, he uncovered a little boy, about 6 years old. With the help of his companions, he pulled his body and his legs free, and though he was bleeding from his head and arm, he was alive and well. Several weeks later, he returned to visit the boy and what was left of his family. They were in a relative’s home. The boy was well, he was smiling, and he was all over the young man. “You saved me, right? Tell me how you saved me.” His savior looked embarrassed at the attention, humble about his role in saving the little boy. “We all helped. Praise God.” Throughout the visit, the little boy followed him everywhere he went. And when it was time to go, he pleaded with him to stay. “I can’t visit these families, afterwards” he said to a companion. “It’s too difficult.” Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
The famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that the beatitudes were a path to slavery, a threat to success as a human being. But being a Christian is about living for the real kingdom, the one that lives in here, not out there. Being a Christian is believing that the greatest power in the universe is the power of love, which is always patient and kind, never jealous or boastful or narcissistic or proud. The love that Christ offers us is never angry, doesn’t ridicule others, does not harbor deep resentments, never seeks to be first, but always desires to serve. That love seeks the truth, and always hopes, trusts and perseveres.
Read, finally, the words from St Paul:
God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.