The Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who died in February this year, had a film career that spanned over 50 years. Most of us may never have heard of him. However, some will be familiar with one of his roles, for which he is now best known, because of a You Tube video meme that sprang from his 2005 role as Adolf Hitler in the German language historical war drama film ‘Downfall’.
The most memorable scene in the film is set in the German dictator’s World War II secret bunker. After Hitler’s generals bring him bad news about the progress of the war, Ganz, as Hitler, shakily removes his spectacles and sends all but four men out of the room, proceeding to scream at them while his staff wait in the hall and one of them, a woman, begins to cry.
The scene has since been spoofed hundreds of times. The parodies generally keep the German dialogue, but replace the subtitles to make Hitler’s meltdown about something else entirely, whether it’s his pizza arriving late, his telephoning an Indian call centre, Newcastle United being relegated, Starbucks coffee, the Red Wedding scene on Game of Thrones or finding out he wasn’t accepted into Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
Ganz gives a mesmerising performance of depicting the rage of a defeated madman as the shock of defeat hits him in the final days of the war. The performance is believable not because it is historically true – there is little supporting evidence for it – but because it is the way most of us would expect a defeated madman like Hitler to behave. And it’s how we would expect other egoistic leaders to behave when they come crashing down: rage, recriminations and blame will be all too common in them after they realise their demise is obvious and inescapable.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading we have an extract from the final speech of another ‘leader’, delivered to his ‘core staff’ in the knowledge he shortly would be arrested and executed. After repeated controversies with authorities in Jerusalem, Jesus met his ‘generals’ (the apostles) in hiding. Our text today falls in the brief interval between Jesus telling them of his imminent betrayal by Judas (John 13:21) and predicting Peter’s upcoming denials (John13:36-38). So you might have expected Jesus to express his disappointment or regret, or even deliver a tongue-lashing to the disciples for their disloyalty and cowardice.
However, at this moment of his own apparent ‘downfall’, Jesus does not behave as one might expect. There are no tantrums or demands for vengeance. Instead, Jesus speaks to them of love. Even as he faced death, Jesus acted not in rage or blame but spoke of the love he and God the Father share, of the love he has for his disciples and of the love they must have for one another.
This was no ordinary ‘leader’.
But it’s not any old kind of ‘love’ of which Jesus speaks. The original language of the New Testament, Greek, has several words to express the various levels of our English word ‘love’. There is Storgé, meaning affection, the quiet liking you might feel for kindly people you meet from time to time; there is Eros, sensual or erotic love; another term is Philia, brotherly/sisterly love or friendship; and, finally, there is Agapé, which means generous, self-giving, selfless love, which we offer to another even when there is nothing for us to gain from it. (This is the love – agape – defined by St Paul in his famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 as being ‘patient and kind, never jealous or boastful or conceited …’)
So when Jesus says in our Gospel text today: ‘just as I have loved you, you also must love one another’, he is asking that we try to have the same selfless love for others that he has for us. He wants the defining quality of a Christian’s life not to be selfishness but selflessness, the generous giving of ourselves in loving service of others.
For much of our lives it is a struggle for us to resist the natural instinct to be self-ish rather than self-less. However, married people and those in committed relationships, whatever their shortcomings, live this love every day; parents live it in the care of their children, as do anxious grandparents for an unwell grandchild; single people and those who live alone live it when they look beyond themselves to respond to the needs of others; people working in a caring or service profession live this love when they go the ‘extra mile’ for the person they otherwise might see as just a client or customer …
Selflessness is the purest form of love, so much so that Jesus teaches that ‘whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in him.’ (1 John 4:16) When we give or receive this love, we meet God.
So how many times will you meet God today? Not will you meet God – but how many times?
Holy Name, Jesmond
19 May 2019