Reflecting Calvary: What it Means to be Truly Human

People, Film
Father James, played by Brendan Gleeson, in the film 'Calvary'

What does it mean to be truly human?

Such a query provokes a host of diverging responses ranging from the empiricist’s “propagation of the genome,” to the relativist’s “it means whatever you want,” or the inevitable “there is no answer to such questions.” Yet the Judeo-Christian tradition offers a wholly different answer.

The late Catholic theologian, Herbert McCabe, articulates a specifically and profoundly Christian answer to this all-important question. At its simplest, McCabe’s answer is really quite simple: being truly human requires death.

McCabe arrives at such an anthropology through the life of Christ. He writes: “the story of Jesus is what the eternal Trinitarian life of God looks like when it is projected upon the screen of…sinful human history…that his life was so colourful, eventful and tragic is simply because of what being human involves in our world. We for the most part shy off being human because if we are really human we will be crucified.” [3]

To be human in such an inhuman world entails suffering and ultimately death. This is simply the “antithetical” bind of Judeo-Christian personhood, according to McCabe, for if “you do not love you will not be alive,” and yet “if you do love you will be killed.”[5]

Nowhere is this bind expressed so clearly than in Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh’s  most recent film Calvary. If the story of Jesus is what the Trinitarian life looks like projected upon the screen of human history, Calvary is a rehearsal of Jesus’ passion projected upon the life of a Catholic priest in rural Ireland.

Calvary chronicles the final seven days of Father James, played by Brendan Gleeson. The narrative begins abruptly with the confession of a man informing Fr. James that he was sexually abused over a period of five years as a young boy. Cutting through the Father’s stunned silence the man says: “I’m going to kill you, Father. I’m going to kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong.”

Thus commences the unspooling of a contemporary lex talionis: the spoiling of an innocent priest for the spoiling of an innocent boy. As the alleged killer sees it: “There’s no point in killing a bad priest. But killing a good one – that’d be a shock. [They] wouldn’t know what to do with that.”

The priest is given a week to put his house in order.

For the rest of the film, we accompany Fr. James as he attempts to shepherd his flock—a thoroughly wayward group providing the viewer with a full spectrum of human vice. It is amidst such a flock that the priest realizes the call to follow Jesus is the call to a cruciform life: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” There is a sense in which John 12:23-28 is the undercurrent that pulls the narrative along. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that Father James’ “soul was troubled” at the prospect of facing Calvary.

In fact, he initially succumbs to the temptation to let this cup pass. On the eve of his execution, Father James exchanges his black frock for a black leather jacket and drives to the airport for a flight to Dublin. While awaiting his escape vehicle, he runs into Teresa, a character whom we meet earlier in the film.

After performing the last rites for her dying husband tragically killed by a drunk driver, Fr. James and this newly minted widow discuss faith and love in what may well be the rawest scene of the film:

Fr. James: What is faith for most people? It’s the fear of death. Nothing more than that. If that’s all it is, it’s very easy to lose.
Teresa: [referring to her husband’s death] It is not unfair. It is just what happened. Many people do not live good lives. They don’t feel love. That is what is unfair. I feel sorry for them.

A choice confronts Fr. James: is his faith simply the fear of death or is it something more? Is he brave enough to be truly human or will he settle for something less?

Not facing his killer may mean his small corner of the world will likely remain oblivious to what it means to be human, which is to say oblivious to what it means to love and be loved.

His call in following Jesus is the call to become fully human. This call is the call to death. But this is not nihilism. Being truly human means death but it is death through love that leads to life.  This is how the world works: only from death comes life.

In the final scene of Calvary we witness the priest live into his full humanity. Motivated by love, he faces death without fear for the sake of his people. He walks along the craggy beach while a storm broods over the sea, ready to unmask his killer as a free man – free from fear, free to die, free to love.


[1] Herbert McCabe, God Matters, (London: Mowbray, 2000), 98. Special thanks to Nick Nowalk, my friend and colleague for introducing me to this text.
[2] Ibid.,, 93.
[3] Ibid., 23.
[4] Ibid., 93.
[5] Ibid., 218.


Article by Kevin M. Antlitz 


  • Kevin Antlitz received his M.Div. and his Th.M. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, MA, while also completing coursework at Harvard Divinity School and Boston College. He is currently working on his PhD in Systematic Theology at Durham University. His research explores how modern Anglican theologies of the Eucharist might developed by attention to theodrama. He currently serves as a pastor at an Anglican church in Washington, D.C. Prior to this post, Kevin was a chaplain at Princeton University for five years and taught at Gordon College as an adjunct professor.

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