If there is one film that I would recommend this year leading up to Christmas, it’s unquestionably Of Gods and Men. Released earlier this year, Beauvois’ film is a revelation for both the believer and the unbeliever, and I am grateful to have not seen it until the week before Christmas. In the midst of the loud consumerism that often envelops and undercuts the Christological importance of what we celebrate on December 25th, Xavier Beauvois’ film is a quiet meditation on what it means to be a faithful imitator of Christ. At odds with a culture filled with Christians who seem hell-bent on dominating their enemies, Of Gods and Men depicts Trappist monks struggling to become intimate with the Man of Sorrows.
Of Gods and Men is based on the true story of a group of Trappist monks who left much behind to live modest, meditative lives in the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria — where they would eventually be martyred for their faith. The monks’ lives become threatened by Islamic terrorists in the war-torn region. And yet, somehow, their reaction to the terrorists is not one of disdain or hostility, and the film is quick to show a healthy, loving relationship between the monks and the non-extremist Muslims in the region. The film clearly distinguishes between “Islam” and “Islamism.” No, this film is not about an us-versus-them power struggle, and it’s certainly not out to promote xenophobic propaganda. So what motivates the monks to persevere in the face of almost-certain persecution? It is the most singular theme of the film: the Incarnation of God in Christ, and its embodied imperative to love one another.
The first time the terrorists break into the monastery is on Christmas Eve. Christian, the Abbot of the monastery, has a clear message for the terrorists in the face of gunpoint and potential capture or death: “tonight is different from other nights,” for tonight “[we] celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace – Sidna Aïssa [our Lord Jesus].” On this night, invoking the “Prince of Peace” seems disarming, if only momentarily, and the monks continue their evening with a heartened, hymn-filled celebration of Christ’s birth.
In one of the hymns, the monks sing together:
This is the night, the immense night of origins
And nothing exists except love
Except love which now begins
God has prepared the earth like a cradle
For his coming from above
Later, Christian reflects on their plight in relation to the celebration of Christ’s birth: “We welcomed that Child who was born for us, absolutely helpless, and already so threatened… We had to resist the violence. And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It’s to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another. And from birth to birth, we’ll end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are.”
The film depicts a Gethsemane-like situation for these monks who are seeking after Christ. Must they stay? Can this cup be removed from them? In their own strength, this work of love is a source of anguish for the monks. But, together in communal solidarity with one another, they grow more resolved in their willingness to love those that God has placed in their lives.
By virtue of its depiction of these monks embodying Christian love and fidelity, Of Gods and Men challenges Christian and secular viewers alike. Toward the end of Christian’s reflection, he comments that “the Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity.” And, indeed, this is the film’s most striking chord embodied in its quiet tone: we experience our new birth in Christ more and more fully — we learn the grandeur of being heirs with Him, together as sons of the Father — in sacrificing our lives in the pursuit of love, even love for our enemies. It’s a humbling — and sobering — message this Christmas. “God is with us” and “God is love,” so “take up your cross and follow [Him].”