St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Caravaggio
I have the most curious habit.
I’ve never been able to explain it, but I think I finally figured it out.
Let me explain.
Every year, as I enter the season of Advent and begin preparation for Christmas, it never fails. I have an insatiable hunger for stories of Resistance. No, I’m not talking about my much-flawed resistance to temptation or those daunting resistance workout programs. I mean historical stories depicting resistance against oppression. Generally, these tales are historical or at least rooted in historical fact.
So each year, as the days get shorter, the darkness longer and the temperatures colder, I find myself burning the midnight oil watching movies like Is Paris Burning?, A Man For All Seasons, or The Gathering Storm or devouring books like Witness to Hope, Bonhoeffer, or The Gulag Archipelago. My heroes range from St. John Paul II to the French Resistance of the Second World War, from Winston Churchill to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, from Fr. Alfred Delp to Vaclav Havel. These brilliant figures share a penetrating vision and incontestable courage in the midst of an all-consuming darkness. They give shape to G.K. Chesterton’s wise (attributed) observation,
“In the struggle for existence, it is only on those who hang on for ten minutes after all is hopeless, that hope begins to dawn.”
And this year hasn’t been any different. Late one night when my wife was fast asleep, I purchased and watched the film, Anthropoid. Anthropoid is a jarring film released in 2016 and based on the historical 1942 assassination attempt of Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech Resistance in Prague. Heydrich was SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s ruthless deputy, instrumental in enacting the Final Solution responsible for the murder of millions. He was dubbed the Butcher of Prague during his draconian rule of the Czech capital.
The story follows two Czech soldiers dispatched from London to Prague to ally with local Czech Resistance to kill Reinhard Heydrich in an Operation dubbed Anthropoid. To follow this pair of highly-trained young men into a city of brutal occupation with treachery at every turn is to spend two hours on a knife’s edge knowing that all will likely not end well. Meeting a decimated Resistance, moving in with a nervous host family, walking the streets to calculate precise routes, timing and military protection for the wicked Heydrich drew me deeper and deeper into collusion with the two main characters. Clearly, this one act of military assassination wouldn’t change the war, but it would hopefully serve as a brilliant – though short-lived – ray of hope for a people suffocating under the blackest night of Nazi oppression. I will leave you to see the unfolding drama for yourself, but, be assured, it is nothing short of stunning, ruthless and inspiring.
So…why, on earth, would movies like Anthropoid – stories of resistance – have such a inexplicable hold on me during the season of Advent?
Because that is what Advent is: A Season of Resistance.
Advent is a season of hope in a world that demands despair. It is a season of faith in a world that scoffs at such nonsense. It is a season of love in a world that peddles snarky hate. Advent tells us that God has not forgotten us. It reminds us that man’s unconscionable inhumanity to man, like Cain’s selfish murder of his brother and subsequent haughty denial, does not go unnoticed or uncorrected. In fact, we are told, the blood of the violated Abel cries from the ground to a God who will make things right. In Advent, we are assured – guaranteed – that what is coming is true, good and beautiful and yet it is simply beyond our earthly comprehension. Advent challenges us through a wild-eyed, half-naked man eating locusts and speaking incomparable truths as well as through a bashful peasant virgin growing great with child as she lives out her “Yes” to an angel so the world may be saved. Advent says the oppression will end, the darkness will lift, the tears will dry and the joy will brilliantly burst forth. Advent is a season of anticipation while Christmas is a season of deliverance. “Our liberator is coming,” soon gives way to “Our liberator is here.” Advent tells us that notwithstanding our woes, our fears and our worries, we should be at peace.
For behold, the Christ is near.
C.S. Lewis, offering BBC radio broadcasts in England during the dark night of World War II (which ultimately gave rise to his spiritual masterpiece Mere Christianity), knew something about the Christian call to resist worldly and spiritual evil,
“Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
Those two members of the Czech Resistance in Anthropoid, St. John Paul II, St. Thomas More, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and so many more that I have watched or read about this Advent or in Advents past knew about all-consuming darkness, devastating odds and the cruel tendencies of man. But they also knew about the light of Truth, the hope found in courage and the redeeming heroism residing in the depths of each of our hearts.
This Advent let us see the steady, inspiring resistance courageously lived out by St. John the Baptist and Mary.
And let us ask ourselves if we are prepared to join them.
After all, it is the greatest resistance story of all time.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons