Merry Christmas, readers. Let’s take a break from politics and discuss something far more divisive and polarizing—Star Wars. (Yes, there are spoilers. I’ll remind you again below.)
I’m not sure when it happened—perhaps we can trace the phenomenon back to the Roots miniseries, or answering the question, “Who shot J.R.?” or the M*A*S*H series finale—but at some point, entertainment events (especially finales) achieved a degree of national emotional importance that seems to defy logic and reason. Why are we so invested in seeing how television and film series end and so invested in seeing that they end just the right way?
Perhaps the answer is no more complicated than saying that art is powerful, it’s always been powerful, and investing yourself in a great story is a natural (and joyful) part of the human experience.
And that brings me to Rise of Skywalker, the movie that broughtthe “Skywalker saga” to a close. This refers of course to the nine-film arc that began with 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope and included within it some of the best science fiction films ever put on screen (Empire Strikes Back is the best science fiction movie ever; it is known). It has also, sadly, included more than its share of mediocrity and at least one cinematic atrocity. (I’m looking at you, Jar Jar Binks.)
There has been so much mediocrity that Disney’s Marvel franchise arguably has passed the Star Wars series in the hearts and minds of Americans. There was certainly more emotion and intensity in the theater when I saw Endgame than when I saw Rise of Skywalker. Many, many more people in America and around the world have seen the end of the Iron Man/Captain America saga than will see the end of the Skywalker saga.
But for a nerd kid who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, whose room was packed with Star Wars toys and who yelled at the screen in shock when Darth Vader told Luke, “I am your father,” Rise of Skywalker was still the pop-culture event of 2019, and while the franchise had lost a bit of its luster, it was still Star Wars, and I was going to see it.
The movie itself was better than I thought. It was uneven in exactly the way Return of the Jedi was uneven. It’s great and emotionally powerful moments were interspersed with some frankly silly action scenes (I still refused to believe Ewoks can beat stormtroopers in a straight-up fight, and I also refuse to believe that a cavalry charge on a Star Destroyer is a viable tactical choice), but the final confrontation with evil didn’t disappoint, and the denouement of the movie left me with but one conclusion.
Rise of Skywalker is a Christmas movie. No, really.
What follows next is full of spoilers. So don’t read if you haven’t seen it and intend to see it. I’m going to ruin the movie for you.
I’m giving you another paragraph to ponder whether you want to keep reading. Warning: Spoilers follow.
If you’re a Christian who likes fantasy fiction, you see Christ imagery all the time in books and on screens. Sometimes it’s explicit and intentional. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is straight-up Christian allegory. Even in the absence of allegory, Christ comparisons can be obvious. Remember, the resurrected Neo at the end of The Matrix?
There was obvious Christ imagery at the end of Rise of Skywalker, but the Christ imagery was a bit different (and deeper). It didn’t just provide an illustration of who Christ is, it also demonstrated what Christ does. In this sense, Rey was both the Christ of the movie, but also the Christian of the movie. And it was that latter part that moved me in the theater and still moves me when I think about it days later, on Christmas Eve.
If you’re familiar with one of the most important statements in all of Christian history —the Apostle’s Creed —you’re familiar with a puzzling phrase. After the creed affirms the reality of Christ’s death on the cross, it contains this puzzling declaration. “He descended into hell.”
What? Christ went to hell? This has been a contentious declaration (though grounded in scripture) for centuries. For those readers who want to learn more, I’d recommend this recent article by The Gospel Coalition’s Justin Dillehay. But the super-short version of the theological story (as explained in Dillehay’s piece) is that Jesus “experienced death as all humans do,” but “by virtue of his divinity” he was able to “defeat death and the grave.”
Think of the scene at the climactic battle. Rey falls, seemingly dead, in the heart of Sith hell, with the Satan figure looming over her and his countless acolytes surrounding her. After she rises, she confronts the full power of darkness as the personification of the full power of light. “I am all the Sith,” Palpatine declares. “I am all the Jedi,” she responds. And the light overcomes the darkness. It’s not a perfect allegory of course, but the Christ comparison smacks you in the face.
But that’s not the part that truly moved me. Throughout the most recent trilogy, Rey is obviously seeking an identity. She doesn’t remember her parents, she doesn’t know who she is, and she’s obviously both fascinated and terrified by the power within her. Even as she tries to bring Kylo Ren into the light, he tries to pull her into the dark, and when she learns her true identity, she wonders if she’s destined for darkness.
In the brief moments when she sees who she could be—with all the menacing power of a true Sith lord—she’s repulsed, but she’s also terrified that she’s facing her future. She is, after all, a Palpatine, and the Star Wars universe is laden with destiny.
As the movie ended, I wondered about the title. It’s called Rise of Skywalker, but all the Skywalkers were dead. Anakin died long ago. Luke and Leia were gone. Leia’s son died bringing Rey back from death. So, we seemed far from the “rise” of the Skywalkers when Rey returned back to Luke’s home on Tatooine and buried Luke and Leia’s light sabers in the sand (a touching scene, by the way).
But then Rey encounters an old woman who asks who she is. “I’m Rey,” she replies. When the woman asks her family name, Rey sees Luke and Leia. They nod at her. “Skywalker,” she answers. In that moment, I’ll confess that I choked up a bit. In her story arc, there were strong callbacks to the eternal truth of Romans 8:15: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”
Afflicted by our original sin, Satan seeks to make slaves of us all. In short, we’re not inherently good. We’ve got that Palpatine blood coursing in our veins, and our dark destiny beckons. But through Christ, we replace a slaver with a father —and rise as sons and daughters, adopted into his eternal family.
So, there you have it. Rise of Skywalker is a Christmas movie. Rey’s story resonates with the true story of this blessed season. Go to the movie for the light saber battles, stay for the echoes of the Gospel at the end.
One last thing ...
This clip is 10 years old, but I listen to it on loop every Christmas. The hymn is beautiful, and Alison Krauss is magnificent. Have a blessed Christmas, and thank you for reading.
Movie still from Rise of Skywalker by Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved.