Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
It’s that magical time of year once again. The lights turned down low. The soft murmurs of the crowd. The palpable electricity in the room just before that familiar John Williams fanfare slams into your eardrums and the text crawl transforms you back into a child, inch by yellow-Trade-Gothic-typeface inch, disappearing into the vacuum of starry space.
There’s no denying there is something special about Star Wars. If for no other reason than the fact that, 40 years after the release of the first film in 1977, Star Wars still has a rabid fan base, and there is no sign of the fandom slowing down. Due to the announcement of several more movie installments planned for the next years to come — some of which will undoubtedly also have Holiday Season releases — it will become a Christmas tradition for many to see the newest Star Wars release in the weeks before the Holidays. Like a liturgy, old movies will be rewatched in preparation, old theories revisited, fan favorites discussed.
But Star Wars is not a Christmas story, so they are not really Christmas movies. Nor, obviously, are they holiday movies, if you look at the content. They are epic science fantasy adventures, or space operas (depending on who you ask), timed to release in the weeks before Christmas more for the marketing strategy than any tie to the season. But after last year’s release of Rogue One, I’ve come to think of the weeks before Christmas as the perfect time for a yearly new Star Wars installment. And while the Star Wars movies may not be Christmas movies or holiday movies, they are, at the very least, Advent movies. It’s not simply because they now occupy the same yearly space as Advent, but because the predominant theme of the Star Wars metanarrative is hope.Advent is a season to reflect on the hope of Christ’s coming, a season to practice how not to be complacent.
Advent, on the Church calendar, is the four weeks preceding Christmas. If you are in a church tradition or in a household that observes Advent, you probably use an Advent wreath with three blue or purple candles and one pink candle on it. The candles represent hope, peace, love, and joy (the pink one). There is also commonly a white candle in the middle representing Christ. Each Sunday, your family might read a devotion together and light the corresponding candle for the week, leading up to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, when the Christ candle will be lit. Even though there are different themes for each of the candles, the overarching theme of the four weeks of Advent is that of the first week’s candle: hope. The theme of hope is evident in the symbolism of the circular evergreen wreath, which points to our hope of unending everlasting life, of the practice of lighting candles to ward off the darkness, and in the meaning of the name of the season itself: Advent, to wait with anticipation and hope for the advent of our Lord.
The season of Advent is a liminal time, though. The Jews of the Old Testament looked ahead for a Savior they hoped to meet. We now look back and remember that he came, but also look forward and hope for his second coming. Advent is a season that connects those two. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI), in 1985, wrote: “Advent is concerned with the very connection between memory and hope.” When we celebrate Advent, therefore, we find ourselves in a middle place—strangers in the world, but hopeful in the tension of the now-but-not-yet of the Kingdom of God. Our right now is a story told in medias res where we know how the story ends.
This was the Star Wars experience given to us last year in the form of the movie Rogue One, and perhaps it is appropriate that it was the first of the Star Wars “stories” as it stands apart as something different from the rest of the franchise. Of all the Star Wars movies, Rogue One is the most Advent-like of them all, and it was immediately apparent that it was going to be different. Rogue One had no John Williams fanfare. No text crawl. Belonging both to what comes before and what comes after, it didn’t need these familiar lead-ins. It’s a story told between the prequels and the original trilogy—most of it taking place actually almost immediately on top of the events of A New Hope. Like the season of Advent, it’s liminal.
Rogue One opens when the main character, Jyn Erso, is a young child. She witnesses the murder of her mother by Imperial troops and the impressing of her father—a former Imperial science officer—back into Imperial service. As the young Jyn flees from these horrors, we’re led to understand that these experiences will be formative to her later in life when they are only memories. But how will she allow them to shape her?
Not very well, it seems, as the next time we see Jyn, she’s grown, alone, and in an Imperial jail. The picture of disillusioned and discouraged, when she’s released from her bonds by a rebel, she attacks even him in an attempt to get away. Jyn Erso has clearly run out of hope. She’s interested in looking out for herself, and only herself.
Jyn is taken in by the rebels and told that her father, Galen, is still alive and has developed a superweapon for the Empire—a planet killer, so they’ve heard. Nobody has yet witnessed this weapon’s firepower, but they’ve gotten word that an Imperial pilot has defected and claims to have a message from Galen. The pilot is being held by Saw Gerrera, a rogue rebel extremist who helped raise Jyn after her father was taken—until he abandoned her as a teenager to find her own way. The Rebel Alliance needs Jyn’s help to get an introduction to Saw so they can authenticate the pilot’s story, find Galen Erso, and stop the construction of the superweapon before it’s too late. If she helps them, they tell her, she may go free.
Up to this point, Jyn has allowed the terrible memories of her early life—the murder of her mother, the abduction of her father, the abandonment by Saw—to shape her into a hopeless, discouraged, cynical person. The world around her is dark under the rule of the Empire, especially in the years since the fall of the Jedi and the rise of Darth Vader, but Jyn’s personal world is so dark, she can’t, in her disillusionment, muster the desire to face the darkness around her. When Jyn agrees to take the rebels to Saw, and Saw sees what she has become, he asks how she can stand to see the Imperial flag reign across the galaxy. She says, “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.”
This is what life feels like for many of us sometimes. Perhaps most of the time. There’s just too much going on in our own worlds to face the suffering of the greater world. How do we engage with the darkness outside when sometimes the darkness of our inner worlds feels like too much to bear? Sometimes it’s too much work to look up. All we want is to be left alone to manage ourselves as best we can.
But Advent is a season of hope, and hope means fighting discouragement and despair. It’s a season to pause and remember what has come before—that our “hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” If we are living in hope, we can’t allow discouragement to reign in our lives. We must look up, not to be discouraged by what is around us, but to meditate on the past and look forward to the future and decide what sort of people God would have us to be. This hope during Advent must be connected to memory, as Cardinal Ratzinger put it.
This is illustrated in Rogue One as Jyn is only able to begin hoping once her memory is stirred. Galen Erso did send a message to Saw, in hopes it would reach Jyn—his beloved daughter, whom he always called Stardust. In the message, Galen reveals that although he engineered the superweapon, which they are calling the Death Star, he has never been loyal to the Empire. As his ultimate act of rebellion, he built a weakness into the Death Star, allowing for it to be destroyed, but the rebels need to get the plans to the Death Star in order to execute the destruction of the superweapon. He urges Jyn to do this thing, but most important of all, he reminds her who she is: his daughter, his Stardust, his beloved.
Jyn’s memories are stirred and realigned by these assurances. The father she knew and loved from her youth never stopped loving her and did not go on to serve the Empire, but remained a good man. Her hope is ignited with the knowledge and purpose that he has faith in her. She must carry the good news to the Rebel Alliance that the Death Star can be destroyed. She must play her part to save many lives.
To live in hope is to fight discouragement, to not be complacent, just as Jyn realizes she cannot be complacent in the fight against the Empire any longer. For us to live in hope is to remember Christ’s first coming, to live in a state of spiritual non-complacency. Advent is a season to reflect on this—on how not to be complacent.
Jyn doesn’t have long to decide how she will not be complacent once her hope is ignited. She and her rebel spy companion, Cassian, must flee Saw’s compound even as the Death Star destroys an entire city nearby. With them are two temple guardians—Chirrut and Baze—who guarded an empty Jedi temple, and only one of whom (Chirrut) still maintains faith in the Force. The defected Imperial pilot, Bodhi, also goes with them, and Cassian’s droid, K-2SO, who has a curious propensity to act like he desires to be a person. They are the only people to escape the destruction, and they are the only hope of getting the message about the defect in the Death Star back to the Rebel Alliance. But Jyn’s companions also have to take this message about the defect on faith, as Jyn did not grab the recording of the message before fleeing.
There is an element of faith to our hope in Advent, but it is not a groundless faith. We have faith in who God has proven himself to be faithful, just as Jyn’s faith is also grounded in her father’s message and her memories of his character.
Jyn’s faith, and her companions’ faith, are not enough to convince the rest of the rebels to take a chance on her father’s message, though. Without proof of the message, Jyn is unable to convince the Rebel Alliance leadership that her father built the weakness into the Death Star and they should take steps to steal the Death Star plans and fight the Empire. The rebels are terrified of the new weapon the Empire has created and convinced the Empire has the high ground. But hope has been stirred inside Jyn and her friends, and that hope spurs them on to take action against the darkness of the great evil in their world, even if only a few will help them.
Jyn and her companions steal a ship with a handful of other rebels who want to help, and together they fly to Scarif, the planet where the Imperial records—and the Death Star plans—are kept. They know they could be going to their deaths, but once on the planet and executing their plan, the shields are closed above them, and it becomes clear to them that they will not survive. The task they have set out to complete is to bring the hope of life—of salvation from the Empire—to the rest of the galaxy. But it is a salvation they will not see. It is a mission of self-sacrifice, and more than that, it is quite possible no one will ever even know their individual contributions.
And their individual contributions would look small to the outside world: The locking of a door. The unraveling of a single cable. The flipping of a switch. The realignment of an antenna. But the Death Star plans would never have been transmitted off Scarif without every single one of these actions. There would be no “New Hope” without the scared pilot who ran a cable through blaster fire so he could plug it in. Without the blind temple guardian who walked across a beach amidst the battle to flip a switch to “On.” Without the funny droid who wanted to be like a human and gave up what life he had to lock a door behind Jyn and Cassian. Small heroic actions. Little choices. Driven by hope. And by expectancy.
We all have little parts to play in life. And as it has been since the beginning of time, most of us won’t live to see the fulfillment of our hope this side of eternity. The grand things come later—both in the Star Wars saga and in the real narrative. We look back on the quiet stable, the baby in the manger, the stars and the shepherds and the silent night. But Christ will come again in glory.
Every character you care about in Rogue One dies, and there is no fanfare for them. They don’t get to walk down the aisle to Princess Leia and get medals and have everyone cheer for them like Luke and Han Solo did at the end of A New Hope. Jyn and her companions are unsung heroes. They die so others may live, full of hope, knowing the job is not done yet—expecting others to take up their good work after them and carry it on to completion. And this is such a beautiful thing to meditate on during Advent because we also are in this liminal space. Christ will return in glory when the most souls as can be saved are gathered to him, and we light candles in the darkness until then—passing on life and light and hope and eagerly awaiting with expectation and remembrance of who we are in Christ already.
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