This morning I’d like to reflect on the priest as bearer of burdens – and lest you think I’ve gone all clerical and elitist, I do mean to emphasise the priesthood of all believers, and how we have the power to forgive and be channels for God’s absolution and comfort.
Preachers sometimes like to think that they are the ones best equipped to proclaim the good news –Further they often imply that popular culture is the least likely place where you will find the Gospel message. Well, today’s reflection is designed to send you away to the goggle box – the crystal bucket – the TV – in search of a profound drama that preaches a powerful sermon. It may not tell you how to live a good keep-your-noseclean Christian life, but it may give you the heart of the Gospel in a way that will stay in your heart and mind far longer than any words of mine. I’m talking about Broken, which has been showing on BBC for the last 6 weeks, the last episode was on Tuesday. Can I ask how many of you watched most or all of this?
My first bit of good news is that you still have 25 days left to catch up with it on BBC iPlayer. This highly acclaimed, drama follows a Roman Catholic priest played Sean Bean- in a northern English town. It’s powerful stuff, but at times difficult to watch. Guardian critic Sarah Hughes – The largely anti-religious Guardian, mind you – wrote this week: “No other drama this year has cut me so deep to my core.” It’s not easy, light, escapist stuff – but you wouldn’t expect that from writer Jimmy McGovern – who having cut his teeth exploring social issues on Brookside, wrote the screenplay for Priest in 1994, followed it with Cracker, the docudrama Hillsborough, and the BBC1 series Accused.
To introduce it and indicate why I have been so moved – let me read from part of a Guardian review by Sam Wollaston that came out after the 1st episode, entitled: “Jimmy McGovern blasts us with his misery cannon in this bruising drama.” … You don’t think of Sean Bean – Richard Sharpe, Ned Stark, -Boromir – as being cut from that kind of cloth. But he makes an excellent priest: a good listener, principled, pious, compassionate. Not without his own 2 issues – flashbacks to a troubled past, an abusive childhood, a complex relationship with his mother and more than a little creeping doubt. But I’d want that – questioning, rather than blind faith – from my priest. I’d be happy to confess my sins to Father Michael.
His parish is an impoverished, forgotten urban community in northern England where every shop – apart from the betting shop – is shuttered up. Among his depleted congregation is Christina Fitzsimmons (Anna Friel, also excellent) whose little girl, Lisa, is preparing for her first communion. Christina works in that betting shop … make that worked. She’s late for work, area manager Jean isn’t happy, even less so to find Christina has been borrowing from the till. Jean sacks her, Christina whacks Jean, Jean whacks her back. A man continues to push money into a fixed-odds terminal.
Now Christina has a black eye, a bleeding nose, no job. We’ve reached peak McGovern – make that trough McGovern – as low as he can go. No? He can go lower still? There is no money for Lisa’s communion dress, or any benefits for 13 weeks, says the woman at the jobcentre. Christina burns the toast, then her hand, with boiling water. She’s too proud for the food bank, pawns her ring, not that she’s ever getting it back. Bleak enough yet? No?! You want more? Her mum dies. Suddenly and unexpectedly. Which leads Christina to do something desperate and wrong. She pretends her mother hasn’t died, so that she can get her hands on the pension. “You heartless, scheming bitch!” her sister yells.
Father Michael’s mother is also dying. The one we see shouting at boy Michael in a flashback: “You dirty, filthy beast, have you got no bloody shame?” But now she’s frail and needs him. He lies next to her on an airbed, holding her hand. Add Nina Simone, Gerard Manley Hopkins, a toddler’s tricycle abandoned on the pavement. I know, it’s what JMcG does, it’s Broken, what did you expect? This is a portrait of poverty in forgotten Britain, minimum pay and zero hours, crisis, debt and desperation. Which is timely, and important. Looking after elderly family members, too. Are you watching, Mrs May? Plus, it’s an exploration of faith, and the unique relationship between priest and parishioner. Artfully put together, beautifully performed.
But God (sorry, forgive me), it’s bruising. Jimmy’s got his misery cannon out, turned it up to 11, and he’s blasting me with it, at point-blank range. Is it my faith that is being tested here? It does feel a bit like penance. I’m not asking for much – not a rollover lottery win for Christina, nothing like that. Just a chink of light somewhere, some hope. “It’s easy to forget Christ’s here, giving us strength, easing our pain,” says Father Michael. Come on now, Father, hang in there, Christina needs you, maybe you need each other, I think I need you. 3 The review ends: Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. For his mercy endures for ever.”
When – think about it – when have we ever, ever seen a priest or minister, depicted on TV with this much humanity, this much faith, this much realism. It’s Rev, but without the laughs and a much darker past. Perhaps Brendan Gleason’s martyred west of Ireland priest in Calvary, or Jeremy Irons in The Mission, as the Jesuit Fr Gabriel, helping De Niro’s Mendoza atone for his sins. Broken has been called TV’s answer to It’s a Wonderful Life. There are other stories woven through the series, the demons in Fr Michael’s past, a would-be suicide, a homophobic hate crime, a disturbed black teenager who is shot by police, and whose mother in her grief is a fount of grace. I said it wasn’t easy watching. But through the stories, and the prayers we hear, and the Sacraments, the grace and mercy of God flow in a faith-building way. It may be that more people go back to church through watching this drama than have been touched by any preacher – though I doubt that was the direct intention of the writer. Of course it’s not perfect. There are theological problems, and yes it has strong language and contains scenes that will be upsetting. The dialogue sometimes strains, and I know I’m a sucker for a sentimental ending. But see it if you can.
What does Broken have to do with our Gospel reading today? Well mainly there is something here about burdens, and broken-ness and burdens. Again and again in Broken, we see people nearly crushed by burdens of guilt or shame or regret – burdens that they cannot get through or shake off by themselves. And Christ is there. Can me to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden. In episode 3, a young policeman comes to Mass. PC Andrew Powell has told Father Michael already that he cannot avoid lying: –Despite his fervent desire to tell the truth about a police killing – in the end, to save his job, his marriage, the roof over the head of their 1-year old, he is going to collude in a police cover-up. But that evening, distraught and weeping, he comes up for communion, and Father Michael gives him the Bread – “The Body of Christ.” Afterwards he calls on the priest and says why did you give that to me. And Michael says, Why did you come up for it? He says, Because I’ve never needed it so much in my life And Michael says, so tenderly, That’s why I gave it to you.
But as I said at the beginning, it is not only for priests to mediate, to absolve. At my son’s ordination service last Saturday, Bishop Tim Ellis 4 preached a fine sermon, touching on the power of the priesthood, particularly the power to offer God’s forgiveness, or absolution. And he told this story:
After the greatest abuse of power ever known to humanity: Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany, the families of the Nazi leaders were left behind to cope with the evil their ancestors had done. A recent television programme, ‘Hitler’s Children’, looked in depth at the experiences of four relatives of four of the most vilified of the Nazi leaders…Himmler, Frank, Goering and Hoess. Some had dealt with their legacy by devoting lives to teaching, writing and preaching against far-right politics, others had disappeared far away into the desert of America to hide and had been sterilised to ‘prevent the virus being passed on’. The grandson of Rudolf Hoess, the Governor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, had only one link with his grandfather – a black and white photograph of the Commandant’s garden next to the death camp. It showed a happy family of children and parents, his own mother and father amongst them, with paddling pool, swing and slide, playing contentedly in the garden and, to the left, a beautiful wrought iron garden gate which led through the garden wall directly to the horrors of Auschwitz. Rainer Hoess had never visited the garden, but he was taken there as part of the film…when he saw the gate, he stood and wept. Later, he was asked to address a group of Jewish children and their aged Jewish mentor – himself a survivor of the death camp. Rainer spoke of his disgust and his horror at his grandfather’s deeds and how he himself had carried an intolerable burden of guilt for the whole of his life. The aged teacher stood to his feet and gently asked if he could shake Rainer’s hand and, as they approached each other, instead they hugged and a lifetime of grief and burden slipped away for both men.
And Bishop Ellis asked the newly ordained priests in front of him, and all of us, “Which of the two men in Auschwitz do you believe to have been a priest to the other?”
It is at the heart of the gospel that burdens can be relieved – lightened – lifted – transformed by God. Look again at the promises in Zechariah reading we had.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.
Look again at Psalm 145
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.
And the fundamental – central to the gospel – verses from Matthew.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
In the last two verses of this reading, as Larry tells us in his notes on the passage, at the back of the service sheet, the yoke Jesus is referring to is the yoke of the Torah, keeping the Jewish law. Elsewhere he castigates the Pharisees for not lifting a finger, and for increasing the burden of laws the people must keep. Here Jesus is saying that there is a whole other way. One that is hidden from the so-called learned and wise, and revealed to the child-at-heart. How can Jesus say that his burden is easy? Did he not speak of taking up your cross to follow him, of giving up riches, possessions, even family for the sake of the kingdom? I will be the first to admit that the radical nature of the message of God has been poorly taken up in my life, and that has always seemed a glorious idea, but perhaps more suitable for a 1st century group of believers who thought the end-times were imminent. How is his burden light? How is his yoke easy? There is a clue in the enthusiasm and joy and the loving refreshment he offers and that comes with his radical discipleship. Like a couple newly in love, for whom immediate surroundings, physical discomforts, even flaws and faults in the other melt into insignificance compared to the bright light and energy in the relationship.
Of course we are not in love in that way all the time. And to suggest that is always possible or normative is naïve. It minimises that searing pain we experience, or those black black clouds of depression, or the seemingly endless grief of bereavement. But there is in this message of broken-ness another side to relieving burdens. And that is that brokenness can be healing for others. The humility that can accompany those who have known suffering can be light for another. In a mysterious, astonishing way, brokenness gives us, as it gave Jesus, the right to speak truth into each other’s lives; and brokenness gives us, as it gave Jesus, the power to forgive and to absolve; and broken-ness gives us, as it gave Jesus, the power to lift burdens. You or I can do it, in a few words – or even without words, or with silent tears, or an embrace, or a touch.
What Jesus offers springs from his own gentleness and warmth to all who turn to him. Whatever the burdens: moral, financial, physical, emotional. Guilt or shame or deep regret about a life choice. And however crushing.
In Broken, before sitting with an anguished parishioner in confession or counselling, Father Michael takes a moment to light a candle, and he affirms: “It’s easy to forget Christ is here, giving us strength, easing our pain.” Jesus – who himself was broken – and who is himself, in the old translation – ‘meek and lowly of heart’ reminds us today that he is not standing over us like an angry schoolteacher or a policeman about to bring the law crashing on our heads. Instead for all those who abandon themselves to his mercy, he pulls back the curtain and lets us see who ‘the Father’ really is – encouraging each of us to come into his loving, welcoming presence, bringing our burdens and our brokenness to the one who was broken, for our sakes.