***This article may contain spoilers for the film Manchester by the Sea.***Recently my wife and I were in Target discussing the movie we had just seen, Manchester by the Sea, when my wife used her brilliant skills of summing things up: “It was all about how people deal with grief.” At exactly that moment, as though we had just been written into the film, a student from my old church came running up to us. It had been over a year since I’d left my position as the Director of Youth Ministries amidst much conflict and turmoil. This student was delighted to see us, and she told us briefly about the ups and downs of going through her final year of high school. Maybe she didn’t notice my smile was a little forced or that my wife’s speech was a little stilted as we made small talk, shocked by the abruptness with which this past tragedy had inserted itself into our Saturday. In any case, the school’s Winter Ball awaited, so she really had to get going, but it was great to see us, maybe we could all catch up soon? She gave us a quick hug and was on her way, leaving my wife and me in the wake of a grief that apparently was still lingering just below the surface of our life. Advent tells us everything doesn’t have to be okay right now; we don’t have to have our lives all together.Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s new film works to expose the griefs that stay just beneath the surface. It would seem to be a movie out of place in the Christmas season, what with the bright lights and decorations everywhere beckoning us to rejoice and be merry. But Advent, the time that precedes Christmas on the traditional church calendar, is the perfect time for a movie about grief. For what News can be Good that doesn’t first reckon with the reality of daily life? How can Tidings be Glad if we don’t understand just how much we need a bit of hope?
Manchester by the Sea revolves around Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) in the aftermath of the death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), due to congestive heart failure. Lee, who lives a very lonely life in Boston, comes to discover he was named as the sole guardian for Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose mom left years ago. Joe has provided for everything, from moving expenses for Lee to the cost of caring for Patrick. When Lee realizes that the intention is for him to leave his job as a handyman in Boston and to move back to Manchester, he is forced to confront the defining tragedy of his past in the small, seaside, Massachusetts town.
Throughout the film, we see characters dealing with their various griefs in a number of ways: some try to fill the hole by surrounding themselves with people at all times, others withdraw from all connections; some turn to drugs or drink, others to religion or work. For just about everyone, these methods become more about running from the grief rather than actually dealing with it. But each of them are faced with a moment in which they are forced to reckon with their grief. In the film’s emotional climax, Lee runs into his ex-wife, now remarried with a new baby boy, on the streets of Manchester. Randi (Michelle Williams) wants to get lunch, to apologize for the ways their marriage came apart, but Lee can’t bring himself to face it. He hurries away, and we next see him in a bar, getting into a fight with a bunch of strangers, trying once again to run from his grief.
For some people, if not most, this season is the saddest part of the year. Beneath the saccharine sweetness of Christmas lies a heartache: “I thought this year would be different.” It’s a harsh reminder of the realities of our situation: losing a job or missing a promotion, the death of a loved one, the struggle to conceive a child. It makes the Christmas we see in holiday specials and storefronts difficult to find for so many of us. We feel out of place on Christmas, and, what’s more, we feel shame for feeling so out of place.
Advent, however, offers no such shame. Advent is about waiting, about living in the tension between the way the world is and the way we wish the world would one day be. It tells us of a God who did not look down upon our hurt and say, “Well, if you just got into the holiday spirit…” but instead says, “Here, let me be with you in the pain.” It tells us of the first advent, the coming of God made flesh into the world, but also of the second Advent, when he will come and “shall wipe away all tears from [our] eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.” Each Advent season is a chance to remember that we live between these two comings of Christ and that the place in between is a place full of grief.
Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful portrait of grief in real life, how people handle unimaginable loss. But it resists the urge to settle for the easy answer. Lee is going back to the city, alone as ever, and Patrick is to spend the last few years of high school under the care of his dad’s good friends, George and his wife (they are the only ones who present a moderately healthy vision of grief). Ultimately, the grief of Lee’s tragedy in Manchester all those years ago was too much for him. He is willing to admit he’s not strong enough to deal with it on his own. Lee promises to remain present in Patrick’s life, even if he’s not his legal guardian, and the film ends with a shot of the two of them sitting side-by-side, fishing off the back of Joe’s boat. At first, it would seem that the movie ends on a hopeless note.
But this is the hope of Advent. In the midst of tragedy, we struggle to find meaning or purpose as we process it. It’s not up to us simply to gut it out and get over our pain and smile and make sure everyone knows we’re great. Sometimes, like Lee, we “just can’t beat it.” Sometimes it takes everything within us just to take the next step. Fortunately, all that Advent asks of us is to be honest in that tension, to admit we can’t get through on our own. And in that tension, Advent asks us to remember Emmanuel, God with Us, who came to face the ultimate defeat, so that we may be made whole and long for his return. This first coming—what second-century church father Irenaeus called “the scandal of the incarnation”—means that God had forever linked himself with us, not just in spite of our griefs, but because of them.
Advent tells us everything doesn’t have to be okay right now; we don’t have to have our lives all together. But it also tells us that one day soon, things will be better. For now, God promises to sit with us in the middle of our grief, “even to the end of the age.”
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