catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 23 :: 2011.12.23 — 2012.01.05


The hopes and fears of all the years

What is often missed at Christmas time is the uniqueness of the incarnation. It’s a strange idea really. As a question it might be framed: What if God, a wholly transcendent other, entered into this material world full of dirt and stuff, and became a human being? For some it might be an easily dismissed question, but for Christians it is the essential first step of faith.

The best Christmas carols can communicate this idea poetically. “Joy to the World” puts it this way,

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found…

Thorns in the ground are like the blight of sin in all the cosmos.  In “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we sing,

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Here the longing is for the conquering of death and gloom, for the light to pierce the darkness.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” gets at this question beautifully. The first verse ends, “The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.” This is a sort of thesis statement for Christmas. In this short and simple phrase one finds the reason for the incarnation. The joining of the cosmic with the intimate and personal — the nitty-gritty of a small town, a manger, shepherds — with the significance of God bringing the redemption of the universe.

Recently I saw two films that connected this Christmas music I was hearing to the stories that the films were telling. These films get at the complexity of the idea of the incarnation. First, I saw Mike Cahill and Brit Marling’s Another Earth (now available on DVD) and then Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (now in theaters).

Another Earth is a sci-fi film that asks the question: what if there was another earth, a tangible alternative to present reality? The film tells the story of Rhoda (Brit Marling), who as a young woman, gets in a car accident that results in the death of a mother and her son. The father, John (William Mapother), survives and becomes a recluse. The theme of the film is Rhoda’s attempt to forgive herself for the pain that she has caused. She attempts to confess to John her guilt, however, can’t build up the courage. And when she wins a trip that will allow her to leave this earth to explore Earth 2, she wonders if this is her opportunity to escape and experience a second chance.

While the film tells a compelling story, this deeper question of how forgiveness and reconciliation are possible, is where this story shines brightest. It invites the viewer to imagine a different ending to the guilt we often find ourselves engulfed in. While in our current world we don’t get the opportunity to experience a “do over” for our past actions, we can recognize that there is more to life than merely the choices we make. What is needed is a hopeful imagination: a way to envision the future that moves us forward and beyond the past. In the film, Earth 2 works as an excellent foil to understanding how hope works. When new possibilities open up our thinking, we are given a new another way of knowing who we are and who we are becoming.  

Melancholia starkly depicts what happens when fear eclipses hope. A young couple, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), are getting married at her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) country estate. There is a palpable tension in all of the relationships: bride and groom, sister-to-sister, mother and daughter. The wedding goes from bad to worse, as Justine becomes more and more depressed, as she recognizes her loneliness. It turns out that there is a large planet named Melancholia that is heading toward the earth. Scientists are divided on whether it will miss a collision with earth in a best case scenario, or worse case, completely envelop and destroy earth and all the life it contains.  

Justine’s prescience leans toward a more pessimistic ending, while Claire remains the eternal optimist. The second part of the film goes on to explore the psychology of fear and hope that are at play as they wait to see what will happen. While this film is dark, its greatness lies in its ability to help the audience feel a sense of fear and foreboding at the coming of the end of the world. The characters begin to reflect on their finitude and the possibility of meaninglessness. They attempt to reconcile the tension between hope and fear, but in the end they ultimately cannot sustain their hope.

Both of these films get at the theme of fear and hope. Fear that we are alone, that we cannot be reconciled to others, and that everything good lies in the past. But there is also a sense of hope. A hope that we can move beyond our past, that we can forgive and be forgiven, and a hope that our stories have a purpose and meaning beyond our individual lives. This connection between hope and fear is what joins our individual stories with a longing for cosmic significance.

This Christmas we remember the incarnation, the central story that tells of meaning and transcendence. Not as some ethereal place beyond time and death. Nor as some other earth that one escapes too. This year while you think on Christmas you can be reminded that the incarnation is a tangible hope that the holy and transcendent God, entered into and came down to earth, to take on our fully embodied humanity.  This act “disperses the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow…put to flight.” At Christmas we reflect on the “hopes and fears of all the years,” and how they “are met in thee tonight.”

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