Ghosts? Text of a Sermon preached by Fr Robert MacSwain on the 3rd Sunday of Easter 2018 at St Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

For the Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48

I’m not a fan of most supernatural horror movies, but there are some good, well-made, thought-provoking ghost films out there, by which I mean films that are less about scaring you witless and more about making you think about what it would mean to either be a ghost or to interact with one.

Haley Joel Onsment and Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, dir. M Night Shayamalam (Hollywood Pictures 1999)

Perhaps the best-known example of this genre is The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan, which came out in 1999, starring Haley Joel Osment as a young boy who—as he famously puts it—“sees dead people,” and Bruce Willis as the skeptical child psychologist trying to help him. Aside from one of the most talked-about plot twists in cinematic history, Shyamalan’s distinctive take on ghosts is that—as Osment’s character again puts it—“they don’t know they’re dead.” Ghosts are stuck between this life and the next due to some trauma or unresolved problem, and although they think they are still alive they can’t move on until they are somehow healed or released from whatever is holding them back. It’s a powerful and moving film.[1]

Another film in this category is The Devil’s Backbone by Guillermo del Toro, which came out in 2001. Set at a boys’ orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, del Toro’s distinctive take on ghosts is that they are as afraid of us as we are of them. But, as in The Sixth Sense, the ghosts in The Devil’s Backbone are also stuck. The film begins with a monologue which asks:

What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.[2]

Of course, the reason I am focusing on what these films suggest about what it means to be a ghost is because our gospel lesson today is also concerned with the precise same question. When Jesus first appears to his disciples after his death, their initial response is not joy and excitement but shock and horror: as Luke puts it, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Jesus then does everything he can to reassure them, and even explicitly addresses the ghost question:

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Jesus did everything he could to assure them that he was not a ghost, but they still took some convincing.

A more recent film than either The Sixth Sense or The Devil’s Backbone is Risen, which came out just two years ago.[3] I don’t like most supernatural horror movies, but I also don’t like most so-called “faith-based” movies either, as they tend to pander to their intended religious audience and the faith they present is usually both simplistic and sentimental. Risen is a partial exception to this critique: it’s a big-budget sword-and-sandals biblical extravaganza like they used to make, with high production values and a strong cast. The well-known English actor Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribune in Jerusalem who is charged by Pilate to oversee the crucifixion of Christ but who is then faced with the serious problem of finding his body when it goes missing three days later.

The film critic Matt Zoller Seitz explains:

And so Clavius has to act like a detective, questioning people who knew Yeshua or were in His presence during His final days, in hopes of figuring out what happened to the body. It couldn’t be an instance of the Son of God coming back from the dead, after all, because that would be a miracle! During his travels, Clavius hears one witness after another describe Yeshua as a benevolent prophet with supernatural powers. And he starts to wonder if he’s on the wrong side.

Joseph Fiennes in Risen, dir. Kevin Reynolds (Columbia Pictures, 2016)

 

Fiennes’ performance sells the transformation. With his attentive stare and subtle reactions—by turns mortified, judgmental and cynically exhausted—he makes Clavius seem more attentive and skeptical than his countrymen. When the tale begins, the character already seems aware that Roman dominance of the region can’t be sustained. All this business with the messiah and the cave jump-starts a spiritual crisis that builds within him. Fiennes’ expressions are just right. We see the character being rattled by other peoples’ astonishment and gradually deciding to give in and join it.[4]

Where Risen overplays its hand and eventually unravels as a film is that Clavius actually meets the resurrected Christ. In a crucial scene, the Roman soldiers are hunting through the streets of Jerusalem for the disciples-in-hiding so they can find the body and end this religious movement. Clavius kicks open a door, sword in hand, and there is Jesus with the eleven in the upper room, sharing the very meal that our gospel lesson describes as they touch his wounds with wondering hands. Recognizing the man he saw die on the cross with his own eyes, Clavius drops his sword, puts his back against a wall, and slowly slides to the floor. Even more problematically, Clavius then joins with the disciples, helps them escape the Roman legions, gets them safely to Galilee, participates in the miraculous haul of fish, and even witnesses the ascension.

The problem with all this, both cinematically and theologically, is not so much that Clavius is an imaginary addition to the biblical narrative, but rather that what Seitz described above should have been sufficient. The character of Clavius, a cynical and skeptical Roman soldier, more plausibly represents us instead of the disciples. That is, he represents not the immediate inner circle but those who came later, those who come to believe in the resurrection not because of a visible encounter with the risen Christ, but because of the witness to that resurrection by his closest followers in their words and deeds, and the way in which that witness resonates within. It is in the chaos and confusion of Jerusalem after the body disappears, it is in the relentless brutality of maintaining empire, it is in the spiritual emptiness of his existence that the radiantly transformed lives of the disciples open Clavius to the inconceivable possibility that the Nazarene is really the Son of God after all. And so it is in the chaos and confusion of our own lives as well. The additional elements in Risen are not just implausible, they are unnecessary.

Back to The Sixth Sense and The Devil’s Backbone, in both of them ghosts are stuck, stuck between this world and the next, unable to move forward until what binds them has been loosed, their trauma has been healed, their problem has been solved:

What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.

Jesus is not a ghost, but we often find ourselves stuck in similar ghostly loops from which we cannot extricate ourselves. When something doesn’t work in our lives we try to move on, and often do, but then when the next thing doesn’t work either, we are tempted to go back to what didn’t work earlier, just because it is familiar, and then we just repeat ourselves ad nauseam. This is actually a famous definition of insanity, namely doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But how much of our lives can be described this way?

Jesus is not a ghost, but he sees us in our ghostliness and offers a way out. The eternal life he shares with us is not a ghostly existence, like an insect trapped in amber, but real life in all its fullness. So let us pray:

O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light: Grant that we, who have been raised with him, may abide in his presence and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever. Amen.[5]

[1] The Sixth Sense, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan (Buena Vista Pictures, 1999).

[2] The Devil’s Backbone [El espinazo del Diablo], directed by Guillermo del Toro, and written by del Toro, David Muñoz, and Antonio Trashorras (Sony Pictures Classics, 2001).

[3] Risen, directed by Kevin Reynolds, written by Reynolds and Paul Aiello (Columbia Pictures, 2016).

[4] Matt Zoller Seitz, Review of Risen: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/risen-2016

[5] Collect for Tuesday in Easter Week (BCP 223).