As I begin writing this, it’s 9:45 PM, and my father-in-law is undergoing lung transplant surgery. I’m sitting in the waiting area with my wife, my mother-in-law, and a few friends. We’ve been here since 1:30 AM this morning. The family in the waiting area next to ours is receiving a heart from the same donor.
These lives we lead, this world we live in, these loves we share are remarkable. It is very obvious to me as I sit here while another man’s lung is put in my father-in-law’s chest that our lives are not simply our own. Life is a shared substance. It intertwines and inundates us all. How I spend my life affects how you are able to spend yours. Perhaps that’s why we join hands with each other in prayer, as we all in this waiting room just did, as a symbol of the Spirit which interweaves us.
“[Jesus] was before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17
“Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” John 14:19-20
Or, as Rich Mullins put it in “All the Way To Kingdom Come”:
LIfe is a mystery
It’s a mystery that we’re all living
The world is so fragile
And we’re so frail, so frail
Yeah, with the sweet Lord Jesus, His mysterious heart
Keeps the life-blood pumping at the center of it all
If He let go of us, we’d all blow apart
But He holds on tight, His love don’t fail
But, Elijah, you’re thinking, what does any of this have to do with Before Midnight, the recently released third installment in Richard Linklater’s remarkable collaboration with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke about a couple who walks together through European cities talking about love and life. Celine and Jesse met on a train to Vienna eighteen years ago in Before Sunrise, they reconnected nine years later in Paris in Before Sunset, and now, nine years later still, they are in Greece navigating a tumultuous season in their relationship in Before Midnight. Each part of the trilogy is well worth your time.
From the beginning of this trilogy, there has been a strong sense of capital “F” Fate hanging over this couple’s interactions. They seem, like so many cinematic couples, “meant to be.” That sense of romantic destiny seems inescapable in stories of all kinds. Perhaps that’s because all stories are the work of a storyteller. There is always a force shepherding the events of the narrative. Storytellers will tell you that the process feels less like predestining and more like discovery, as if the characters in question have wills uncontrollable by the narrator. But the audience isn’t privy to that process. By the story’s end, the audience sees only a (mostly) sensibly structured order of events.
On the other hand, each installment in this Before series has hinged on choice – Celine has to decide to get off the train in Vienna with Jesse, they give each other the chance to decide to meet back up in Vienna a year later, Celine decides to go to Jesse’s book signing event to reconnect with him, Jesse decides to put off catching his flight to stay with Celine, and as this film begins, quite clearly they have decided to stay together in the intervening years. Other characters in the story even remark how fateful their romance seems, but Celine and Jesse are quick to point out the choices involved. Choice continues to play a part in the narrative of Before Midnight, and I will not ruin those choices for you here.
Fate in the narrative’s formation alongside a resounding claim of free will on the part of the narrative’s players and no clear stratification between the two? That sounds like real life to me. It sounds like the stuff of a tension-filled argument minds much greater than mine have been unable to solve for as long people have been paying attention.
Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke aren’t interested in solving it either, but they are interested in getting lost in it, because getting lost in that riddle – Is this life fate or free will? – is the stuff of life. These films are awash with real life.
Jesus didn’t solve the riddle either, I think, because, well, maybe he didn’t know, because maybe settling on either side of that question would be to unfaithfully simplify God and to remove the ligaments of a relationship with God and with each other.
Because what Jesus did do, and what the Bible does again and again, and what Linklater’s trilogy does so resoundingly in Before Midnight, is to campaign for continued, committed relationships with one another. Jesus claimed to be intimately in his followers, because he is, and because we need to understand that we are all connected to one another mysteriously and magnificently. His life is my life is your life is the life of everything on this planet throughout history.
Whether predestined or personally decided, Celine and Jesse are connected to each other, and others are connected to them in a messy web of personal cause and communal effect. The decisions they make to support that connection makes everyone in their lives stronger, just as the decisions we make to support the cause of Christ – the reconciliation of all things – make everyone stronger.
It is now the morning following when I began writing this review. My father-in-law’s surgery was successful. Praise God! The recovery process will be delicate, but the doctors are very optimistic. Soon, my father-in-law will breathe on his own with renewed strength. His life, from this point on, is the gift of an unimaginably generous young man whom we will never meet in this life. His life is now, very clearly, a shared life. It always was. It always will be. Ours is no different.