Mass Effect: what the movie Mass says about grief and forgiveness
Mass, nationwide opening on October 22, is not always easy on the eyes. But then again, few interesting things are easy.
Mass takes place almost entirely within the confines of a church – just one room in that church, in fact. Four people spend an afternoon talking about an unimaginable tragedy: Gail and Jay (played by Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs) lost their son in a school shooting. Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney) raised the killer.
The film, directed by first-time director Franz Kranz and distributed by Bleecker Street, takes us through the anger and shame, grief and confusion of the four parents. It’s a master class of empathy, asking us to understand each of these four very different people.
Jay and Gail desperately want Linda and Richard to explain Hayden to them: How was he growing up? When was he wrong? Have they seen? Could they have done more to stop it? Gail and Jay know most of Hayden’s, of course. The media covered the story extensively, as you can imagine. And for years the couple have tried to glean all the information they can get. But they want to hear it again – to learn a little detail, to hear about a little while, it would suddenly make Hayden’s state of mind a little clearer, a little more understandable. For years, they have been asking the same question: Why?
They say they don’t blame Linda and Richard, sure… but they do. And they have company. Linda and Richard blame each other too.
“Why not to talk [at the time]? “said Richard, his normally stony face showing cracks.” Because I had no answer. Why not help prevent this from happening again? Because I don’t know how.
But below that why—why did this boy kill? –there is a deeper, even more upsetting, even more compelling why. Why my boy dies?
Mass asks an inherently spiritual question that strikes and hurts deeply if you are a Christian. Despite all the suffering we read in the Bible, most of us think that when we decide to follow Christ, we are signing a contract with God. We will follow You. We will work for you. And in return, you will protect us. You will love us, and this love means you will save us from the terrors of the world. He even has Bible support. “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans of well-being and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. “(Jeremiah 29: 11-12)
This scripture weighs heavily in Mass, which takes place in this simple and multifunctional church hall. The meaning of church is everywhere. A church employee busies himself with awkward good intentions. A piano student plays hesitant hymns in the shrine. Even the lay therapist Jay and Gail attend – the one apparently entering the church in question for the first time – wears a black outfit with a white sash draped over his shoulders, much like a priest in dark clothing.
And above the table where the two couples meet, we see a crucifix holding a dying Christ. An assassinated, but whose death had meaning. Can we find such meaning in such a meaningless tragedy?
Finally, Gail addresses the aching, throbbing nerve – the why of all the whys. ” I made a promise [to my son]- a promise I can’t keep! I promised her her life would be meaningful. That it would not be in vain.
We are struck by a renewed knowledge of his youth. As they were all young.
When Gail mourns her lost promise – the promise she made to her son that his life would mean something – Linda gently asks Gail to tell her a story about their boy. About Evan. And Gail does. She cries and smiles and becomes as lively as we have seen her – the memory of Evan filling her again.
And the answer comes, unspoken. Evan’s life meant something.
“Let him rest,” Linda said. “Evan doesn’t have to change the world.”
Overcoming the past
I was a religious journalist for a daily for a number of years and spoke with many people who suffered unimaginable pain. As a Christian, but sometimes not a very good Christian, I have always found this point of collision between pain and faith fascinating… and confusing. We live our lives in the cup of a loving God, we believe. So why is he allowing such terrible things to happen? Why does he allow them to come to us?
And the question comes back: Why.
God rarely answers such questions. Maybe we could see the answer, if we live long enough. But I don’t think we all see such definite resolutions to our pain in this lifetime.
The Why are still there in our lives, I think. We all suffer from pain, although little of the magnitude we see in Mass. And when that pain is the product of someone else’s decision, born out of pain, anger, or just plain hurt, we want justice. We need it. We are asking for something, anything, to improve it.
It is a good thing, this desire for justice. But in this fallen world, it can be hard to find.
But Jesus showed us that, even without perfect understanding, without perfect righteousness, we can still find a way to move forward: to heal our wounds and move forward. It’s a simple thing, but it is also sometimes incredibly difficult. Forgiveness.
Gail makes a surprising confession towards the end of the movie – that if she forgives Linda and Richard, she would lose Evan again. That she would betray him and his memory.
“But maybe I just needed to be with you because I know now,” Gail said. “I forgive you. I do. I have… And I have to tell you that I also forgive Hayden for what he did… I forgive him because I can’t live this way anymore.
In Psalm 147, we are told that God “heals broken hearts and heals their wounds.” It doesn’t happen right away. But when we are all bound by anger and bitterness, I’m not sure that can happen at all. We can hold onto all of our pain so firmly, as if that pain is what keeps us alive. But in the Bible we are told to lay down our burdens. “I’ll give you some rest.”
Sometimes the burden that hurts us the most is the hardest to put down.
Linda wears a cross around her neck, but none of the main participants seem particularly devout, despite where they meet. Jay admits that he is not at all religious and that he can even seem downright hostile to Christianity. He says the Church’s response made him “so angry” and he protests against the church they are meeting in. the effectively Episcopalian establishment.
But by the time the film took its course, something changed. Jay hears the choir practicing in the shrine. He asks, almost in a trance, what he hears. And when someone asks him if the choir should stop, he says no. Tears fill her eyes as she listens.
Evan is still gone. The loss, the pain, the grief is still there. But in this humble room of this humble church, God took away bitter burdens. And those tears, I think, might just water a better tomorrow.