One, singular piece of information, much discussed in the media, has had a profound affect on the way many people will experience Christmas this year. I first learned this piece of information late last Friday night, and since then I have been trying to figure out precisely what its significance is. Does it make me anxious and worried? Or does it leave me hopeful and expectant? I’m not sure.
Maybe you are wondering too, on this warm Christmas Eve, with so much to worry about in the world, whether Christmas fills you with dread or with hope. And maybe, if you have come across it (and it’s very likely that you have), maybe you are still trying to decide if this single bit of information has contributed to the mystery of this Christmas Eve in a good way or a bad way?
Even if you have not learned it first-hand, you have probably heard from someone else the news that I am referring to. And by repeating it to you I am giving nothing away. This is the news: Luke Skywalker has vanished.
With these words, the Star Wars saga, that began when I was a ten-year-old boy, has continued this year. And many of us have been enthralled to see those words crawl across the screen, as we are once again pulled into the conflict between good and evil that’s taking place in a galaxy far, far away. And we are invited to perch at the edge of our seats as we discover whether the Force, newly re-awakened, will be deployed for the virtuous, the humble, and the needy, or whether it will serve only to advance the cause of the powerful, the rich, and the self-satisfied of the Empire.
To put the question in Biblical terms: will the humble and meek be exalted, and the rich be sent empty away? Or will the mighty maintain their seat, and the proud see the self-serving imagination of their hearts gratified once more? Is this not the question that Star Wars asks again and again?
And is this not the question of Christmas? It is surely the question that Mary sings about when she learns that God intends for her to bear a Son by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. And if Mary doesn’t know the meaning of Christmas, then who does?
Right versus wrong. Good versus evil. Light versus darkness. George Lucas may have sold the rights to the Star Wars franchise, but the story endures. And it enlists such an immense following because it presents these fundamentally religious matters that are about more than politics, more than justice, more than governance, and certainly about more than the movies. Will goodness prevail? Or will it be eclipsed by the power of evil that so often seems to have the upper hand, the better theme music, and the cooler costumes?
A wise priest I know recently said that we “know that evil is a force in this world because it takes energy to resist it.”[i]
How right he is. And we knew that there was evil in the world even before Darth Vader came marching into our lives with his well-scored entrance music, his menacing mask, and his black cape swooping behind him. We know that evil is a force in this world, not because we have seen it on the big screen, but because we can feel it for ourselves, in our lives – sometimes with all the force of a punch to the gut that leaves you feeling like you may have to throw up. And it takes energy to resist that evil.
You find this, at a distance, when you are reading the paper or watching the news. But you also find it closer to hand when you hear of people you know and love who have suffered horribly – not only from sickness and natural disaster (these are bad enough), but at the cruel hands of a vicious regime, or a thief, or a gunman, or a bully, or an abuser, or system that just couldn’t care less. Or maybe you have suffered yourself in these ways.
And you know that goodness will not prevail unless someone does something about it – unless some energy is spent to resist the power of evil at work in the world, near and far. We know that evil is a force in this world because it takes energy to resist it.
Sometimes the evil is so much more personal, though. Sometimes it is that secret desire that you mostly keep at bay, but that, given the opportunity (which often means sufficient time alone, or enough distance to keep a secret) you will indulge, to the detriment of your own self and your good relationships. Does it come in a bottle, or in a pill, or wrapped in leaf or papers? Is it found online (in great profusion), or maybe even on the dark web? Is it at the other end of a phone number that you are careful not to save on your cell phone? Or is it hidden in a text message that you hope no one will ever see, or that you were careful to delete? Have you become so good at keeping this secret desire a secret that you no longer bother wasting much energy even trying to resist it? That it no longer seems like it really takes on the shape of evil?
Have we relegated evil to the movies, because we ourselves don’t bother spending much energy resisting evil anymore – globally or personally?
Part of the genius of the Star Wars legend is the ambivalence of the Force, which can be mastered either for good or for ill. There is perhaps no more terrifying weapon in any of the films than the bony empty fingers of the Emperor, or the black-gloved hand of Darth Vader or Kylo Ren stretched out in order to dominate an opponent - body and mind – with nothing but the unseen power of the Force; knowing that those empty fingers, that empty hand, will bring the object of their invisible power to its knees! The image speaks to us because we actually know that evil so often is invisible, or all too often it is disguised, made up like something we think we might like to have, or might like to be, or might at least like to dress up as for Halloween.
But still, evil is a force in the world. And in the midst of all this, Luke Skywalker has vanished. Luke, whose virtue and mastery of the light side of the Force may mean he is destined to overcome his dark patrimony, unless of course he is not.
Luke Skywalker has vanished. Perhaps this is an appropriate meme for the 21st century – a century in which so often virtue has vanished, faith has vanished, justice has vanished, truth has vanished. And for so many, God has vanished too.
Of course, Luke Skywalker is no god, nor even a savior, but he clearly represents a best hope for ourselves – a story we would like to be able to tell about ourselves: of the hope that we can overcome the darkness that threatens to eclipse our lives, sometimes from the inside out. But now Luke has vanished. Whither now hope?
Well, here we are on Christmas Eve – full of the questions of the moment, wondering if and when we shall have reason to hope for anything at all. And to begin with, the Christmas story tells us that if there is hope to be found, it will not be found in a galaxy far, far away. The answer of Christmas, to the vexing questions that plague us, begins with this assurance: that hope is to be found right here in our midst, because God is at work in our midst. God is here, with us.
And the answer of Christmas continues with a simple thing - a child is born – which is nearly incomprehensible to the dark side of things, because what can a child do? And this great mystery of God’s love – that a child is born – appears to be foolishness on God’s part at first glance, but is shown to be ever more wise, the more we learn about ourselves and about the force of evil.
Try to vanquish evil with military might and you have yourself a never-ending arms race. Try to vanquish evil with fire and you have incited an arsonist more committed to the work than you are. Try to vanquish evil with the strength of your own bare hands, and you find you are up against a fighter who enjoys the fight more than you do. We are tempted to think we should meet evil on its own terms, and beat it at its own game. But this is foolishness. Evil will always be a better destroyer, a better eliminator, and a better murderer than we can be, or ever should be.
God’s wisdom, rather, knows those ways in which evil can never prevail: in weakness, humility, and some measure of poverty – at these, evil has no facility, with these, evil can maintain no equilibrium; and in these, evil can find no power. Which makes a child the perfect hope against evil: an infant savior the kind of redeemer that could only spring from the wisdom of God.
We come running to God on Christmas Eve with the worried meme on our lips that Luke Skywalker has vanished, and the loss of hope that that implies in the real world. We want God to strengthen us, to arm us, and to steel us for battle – after all there is a lot worth fighting for in this world of ours! And a film like Star Wars, that understands our need to be reminded about the possibility of our victory in this struggle, encourages us in our desire to be ready for the fight!
But God knows how things go when everything becomes a war, every challenge is a battle, and every person is called to be a soldier: things don’t go well, not in the long run.
So God chooses weakness; God chooses humility; God chooses poverty. God sends a child to come into the world to be our Savior.
And God calls his people together at Christmas to remind us of this, no matter what the meme of the moment may be, even if Luke Skywalker has vanished.
Put not your trust in Jedi, comes God’s Christmas answer to the vexing questions of our time, nor in any power of men. Turn, instead, your eyes, and your ears, your hands and your hearts, to the manger, and to the Child lying there, sleeping so softly, and see, the power of God to transform all things by his grace, by the power of love, and by the wisdom of his Word. Gather round this cradle, and watch and wait for it. Listen for him; use a baby-monitor if you have to, or stay close enough to hear for yourself if you can. Follow the example of the shepherds, who know that something quite beyond their ken is at hand, but who want to be there to discover it anyway. Remember the wise men who were drawn to this mean crib. Hear the sweet song of the angels singing, hovering as close as they dare.
Do whatever you have to do to be there by his side when his little eyes flutter open, and his little arms and legs stretch out, and his little fingers grasp yours, and his little voice lets out a cry… and the force awakens that has changed the course of human destiny because he gave us again the power to become the children of God that we were always meant to be.
And if there is anything that worries you this Christmas; and if you have the nagging sense that evil remains a force in this world; if you feel quite certain of this because you know that it takes you some energy to resist it, then by all means thank God for bringing you here tonight to show you again that God sent his Son into the world to save it; and to save us. Thank God that the force awakens in its crib, the newborn child: nothing but weakness, humility, and poverty.
The force awakens every Christmas, and every day, and beckons us to believe in him, to place our trust and our hope in him, to align ourselves with that holy force of light and life whose Name is Jesus, and who will teach us that his power is made perfect in weakness.
There is good reason for us to gather tonight, past our bedtimes, when we should be snuggled in our beds; to be here together on this night of mystery and wonder and birth. Because he is only an infant, we know he will not sleep through the night when he comes, and we want to be here when the force awakens, that brings with him hope and salvation, without so much as a rattle to shake.
He is tiny, and he is weak, and he is humble, and he is poor, and he is the Son of God, who brings with him into this world of worry, anxiety, and fear, only his weakness, his humility, and his poverty. And these are more than enough, by the grace of God, to save the world.
So much has vanished: slipped through our hands and just disappeared: so much hope has been lost. Which is why it is good to be here, so that we can sing when the force awakens, and rock him to sleep again till the morning when he awakens again, as he does every morning, to bring us hope.
Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Christmas Eve 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] Fr. Frank Wade, speaking at the Clergy Conference for the Diocese of Pennsylvania, Dec, 2015