Star Wars: The Last Jedi and a spark of true hope

February 8, 2018

Just before Christmas 2017, I found myself in a moment of great anticipation. The lines were long at the movie theater. Somehow, I made it to my seat with friends, my spouse, and spending what seemed the equivalent of a down payment on the national debt for popcorn and soda.

The story depicted in “Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” is introduced by the traditional “opening scroll,” accompanied, as always, by the powerful overture of maestro John Williams. This time around, the opening scroll explains the dire circumstances of the Rebels against the First Order, the post-Darth Vader bad guys. The prior film in the series left heaviness and a great deal of loss with the death of a key character.

Yet, the narrator holds out the good word that a “spark of hope” will rekindle the fortunes of the downtrodden. The return of Luke Skywalker might be the ignition that the future needs!

Throughout the new Star Wars film, characters talk about hope: its absence and its abundance. They face difficult situations and great threats, yet, even in the depth of loss, they find something greater. Skywalker is a hermit, living where he would prefer not to be found and resigned that he has failed. For someone thought to be the spark of hope, he is just as down and dejected as those on the front lines. What will it take?

For Star Wars, it’s the Force — a somewhat mystical power that solves all manner of plot devices, while creating no end of plot holes, if you talk to the particularly faithful fan base! The Force is a great human idea that doesn’t approach God’s way of being with us in the world.

As a Christian believer in the midst of Advent, I could feel an even greater hope stirring within, as pop culture often reflects the glimmerings of what the Gospel reveals in full: Despite the world doing its worst, Christ brings us into an abiding, lasting hope and way of living faithfully, boldly and fearlessly. Luke’s Gospel shows us the true power in the world — one that has neither patience for Empire nor a desire to be like anything that humans could conjure up alone.

No wonder we believers have such great joy in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hope given has raised up the persecuted, the marginalized and the forgotten — just as surely as Mary’s great song, the “Magnificat.”

During the Christmas season, we turn from the lead-up to the great Nativity stories themselves. Boldly, we hear the message of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors” (Luke 2:14). The earthly powers that be — those who see the world as their plaything — do not want to hear this word, even if the angels show up in the halls of power, rather than a remote meadow. The ministry of Christ is one that takes each person seriously, as God’s beloved, worthy of worth, able to be the glory of God and fully alive, as an early Christian theologian would put it. A spark of divine hope, indeed!

How do we carry this hope with us throughout the year? How do we live in the here and now, where the powers that be would frankly find such talk annoying? After all, it is difficult to keep an empire running when the glory is directed elsewhere to a much higher authority — to God who is neither Caesar nor one of many.

The Roman Empire plastered every wall with its promise of “Pax Romana,” but any cursory study of Jesus’ day reveals that it was rarely and holistically for every person. Indeed, to draw an analogy with the Star Wars saga, Rome was the original Empire that strikes back! Comparatively, the angels sing of peace meant for the good of all, not merely a politicized commodity that you can control at your whim or to your advantage.

Thus, that baby in a manger is a contrary word to a world content to keep to its own devices and vices alike. No matter where you flip through the pages of the gospels — Christ in the manger, Christ and his parables, Christ on the cross, Christ and the empty tomb — all are stories of unexpected twists that God alone brings to the plot of life and the status quo.

We seek many things in life, sometimes because we want the perfect moment, the right path or the charmed life. Christ lays bare all these aspirations, asking us to look at the unlikely — the unadorned — and see in vulnerable humility all the power and glory in the most hidden of places. Sin can be found frequently in the world’s glittering appeal, yet, in the midst of the world, came the Word made flesh, nestled into the swaddling clothes that constrain a baby and, by choice, God’s Son come to be with us, Emmanuel.

In the eyes of the world, that manger may not look like much. But if you look more intently, you will see the very glory of God shining forth as the cattle low, the shepherds bustle in from the hinterlands, and Mary and Joseph marvel at this wee babe born in Bethlehem, destined for Golgotha and here to redeem the world.

The Rev. Jerrod Hugenot is associate executive minister of American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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