I don’t know about you, but Christmas time brings up one of my favorite types of story. Not talking Rudolph’s claymation adventure, or Frosty’s, or even 34th Street or Wonderful Life. They’re fine, but no. I’m talking about something on a wider scale, something more ancient: the story of the “Chosen One.”
Pick your favorite. Star Wars, Labyrinth, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, even Disney’s The Sword and the Stone. And Ender’s Game, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Eddie Murphy’s Golden Child, Avatar: The Last Air Bender (and I guess we’ll include Twilight). The Matrix, Superman, Kung Fu Panda, and The Lego Movie. Most of the Marvel projects. And more.
The Chosen One character shows up in a thousand variations, sometimes squeaky-clean, other times an anti-hero or even something of a villain. Sometimes he/she is a singular individual marked by some innate skill, unique nature, or fated destiny; sometimes a not-so-very-Chosen character who depends on hard work, teamwork, or dumb luck to win the day — like our boy, Emmet. Whatever the case, the pattern is everywhere if you look, and it can feel like a well-worn trope. As one great source puts it:
So why does the Chosen One interest us in our Christian worship? Because we all know that by another name these are “Messiah” stories, and during Christmastide we have the beginning to the prototype for them all. It does us good to recognize how some of our favorite films and literature have borrowed directly from the Gospel. And, I think it does us even more good to let our favorite films and literature turn around and inform how we experience God’s cosmic story. Especially with such familiar texts before us, can’t our modern-day Chosen One tales offer visuals and images to translate back towards a more vivid understanding of the coming of Jesus?
I mean, I don’t know about you but during Advent or on Christmas Eve, when somebody predictably reads from Matthew 1 & 2, I can’t help but picture the opening to Willow. And how about this…some of my favorite ways to imagine a young Jesus comes from scenes in Bless the Child. And then, with some liiight stretching, there’s even spiritual insight to take away from my brother’s favorite Christmas movie: Die Hard. What I’m saying is that we can take everything we’ve learned about the Chosen One through recent story and film, and take everything we know about Jesus’ gospel, place them side-by-side, let them overlap, and see how the two illuminate one another.
I think that’s an ideal way to approach where we are today in the telling of the Incarnation. Here, by the end of Luke 2, much has already come to pass. We’ve just seen some familiar elements: ancient prophecy fulfilled, natural and supernatural signs, evil trying to hinder the Chosen One’s arrival and survival. But now our Scripture reading takes us down some sort of side-track. We meet two characters, Simeon and Anna, who are tiny players in the unfolding action, but somehow Luke decides to recount them by name in his gospel. It’s interesting. To me, their presence begs the question: why are they here and what might they tell us about our own place in the Messiah’s story? Remember, maybe if we apply everything our tropes have taught us, we can walk away from this passage with something special.
Read Luke 2:22-40 here.
Simeon and Anna. Do you recognize their type? How about this…as I see it, in nearly every version of the Chosen One, there are minor characters that go one of two ways. First, there are the handfuls (or hordes) of people who are just clueless. Earth-shaking events are developing but they’re oblivious. Or maybe they just choose to be uninvolved. Either way, they become no more than a backdrop for the action – the extras and the faceless masses. Truly minor, menial characters.
Secondly, though, there are also usually some regular folk who choose a more active role. Not head-liners (we don’t always even know their names) but participants who answer a call or advance the mission. They become supporting cast, accomplices, sidekicks, witnesses and narrators – human agents attached to superhuman circumstances. Now, granted, this second category of character also falls into a few different camps – they might be active participants for the forces of Good, or for the cause of Evil, or even just for themselves. In nerd terms, you’ve got your Lando Calrissians, your Jabba the Hutts, and your Boba Fetts. But they have influence, because this second category of character actually chooses to partake in the story. Heck, it’s why sometimes they’re even the characters we love most (or most love to hate).
Back to the gospel reading, this is the category that our two little-known prophets occupy. And they’re clearly not only dynamic participants but they’re also firmly embedded in the cause of the greatest Good. For those reasons, I think they’re being held up to us as exemplars. I think maybe they’re here to teach us the best way to be minor players ourselves in the very real and ongoing story of the Messiah. So what exactly sets them apart? What enables them to be actively involved on the right side of the story?
“I Need a Hero…”
First, they obviously realize their need for a savior. I know that sounds like an overused line from televangelism, “Do you have a Saaaav-eeee-oooorrrr?” But in the most literal sense as Jews in the first century, Simeon and Anna and others were vigilantly expecting a saving figure from God to appear on their behalf. Why? Because that was the absolute centerpiece of their people’s several thousand year old history. After a repetitive cycle of God’s faithfulness and their betrayal, complete with a massive Exile then rebuilding period, most of the common Jewish folk were settled on an underlying theme that had persisted in their story from Adam to Abraham to Moses to the present: there would be a Messiah, a Shepherd, the true King, to come and finally set all things right. With the Roman occupation, and a social structure that was crushing the lower classes, that expectation reached a fever pitch for a good portion of the people.
At the same time, however, not everybody believed in such a thing, or wanted to. There were materialists who found themselves so comfortable that they didn’t have anything to be saved from. Pharisees and priests and well-to-do’s who didn’t need Jesus, and who couldn’t bring themselves to see the people’s need for the Messiah. Frankly, a Messiah would only interrupt or overturn the world that was serving them so well. In addition to the materialists, there were realists in Israel who just weren’t down with the idea of mystical salvation. People who balked at the idea of a magical God-man sweeping down from heaven to save the day. People, like those in every story, who fail to participate in the action because they just can’t believe something so extraordinary could possibly be. Think about it – many of our greatest characters very nearly miss their ultimate adventures because life’s monotony and mundanity up to a point make it seem like there could never be anything else. Neo was almost never born thanks to Thomas Anderson’s cubicle.
It begs the question: if we were living at the time of Jesus’ birth, based on our current attitudes and ways of life, how many of us would dwell firmly in the camp of the materialists or realists? How willing would we have been to welcome a saving hero, let alone to long and wait for one?
How much do we do so now?
What would it look like if we did?
Anna and Simeon are our answer to that last question. As we see them here, they were two people engulfed in the expectant desire for the coming Messiah. They weren’t afraid to hope for it, even to hurt for it. They weren’t bashful to declare that what the world thus far had to offer to them, and to others, was not enough. They admitted that creation needed rescuing in a huge and cosmic way, and they staked their lives on it. Remember, Simeon was ecstatic at meeting child Jesus even though the arrival of the Savior signaled his impending death. Remember, Anna had never remarried after being widowed and instead devoted herself as a professional prayer warrior, round-the-clock, like a vagrant in the Temple, in the hope of merely meeting the Messiah. Even though neither of them ever got to see the fulfillment of Jesus’ life and identity, or hear his teaching, or see his miracles, or witness his death and resurrection, the Spirit affirmed for them that here now, finally, was their salvation, arrived, in the flesh. This expectancy was the single focal point of their existence over the course of decades, and in Luke 2 we learn that it did not let them down.
And all of that is what makes this very attitude of the heart a part of what we lift up today in worship. Simeon and Anna reveal the first step toward serving well as a minor character in the story of the Chosen One: to recognize the need for a savior.
But that’s only the half of it.
There’s a second absolutely critical character trait in Simeon and Anna that makes them such powerful minor characters, and that behooves us to follow suit. They saw their need for a savior, and yearned for it, but they also realized, unequivocally, that they themselves were not that savior. Maybe this is the sticking point for most of us. Maybe it’s why some of us feel put out, secretly or overtly, at considering ourselves as minor at all. I would rather be Neo or Aragorn. When I’m caught up watching the silver screen, I more naturally imagine myself as Luke Skywalker or Han Solo rather than C-3PO or the Ewoks.
If these stories are our fantasies, we tell ourselves, why not go big and pretend that we are the Chosen One who wins the day? It’s a natural feeling; most of our stories are designed to plunge directly into the shoes of the lead characters. It’s who the writers usually intend us to relate to. And, after all, it’s a pretty decent ambition to want to help to save the world, right? Sure. But these can also be some of the most corruptible desires in all of human experience, when we grow over-familiar with the feeling that we are the center of attention and action, glory and power in our own little universe.
“…they also realized, unequivocally, that they themselves were not that savior.”
In Simeon and Anna’s day, for instance, we know that there were groups of people who attempted to try on and keep the Messiah’s crown for themselves. There were zealots and nationalist insurgents intent on ushering in God’s “salvation” for the people by force of arms. Again, there were religious leaders who were blinded not only by their material comfort but also by their mistaken conviction that they (and the Temple system) were the proper saviors of the souls of the people. There were undoubtedly industrialists and humanists who shrugged Jesus off because they saw themselves, and the power of human agency, as their own greatest hope. At times, even Jesus’ closest disciples seemed so impatient to change the world that they weren’t prepared for what Jesus actually came to do, and ultimately they betrayed him for it one way or another.
The same dynamics are at work in you and me, in our deepest natures, and it is a battleground of the heart.
Just take, for instance, two absolutely opposed understandings of the “Chosen One” that emerged from the same historic landscape of the 1920s-40s. The first was the ubermensch or, literally, the “ultra man.” It was an idea that passed through many hands, most notably those of Nietzsche and finally Hitler, which declared that there could be a future person so enlightened by education, so exercised in experience, and so enhanced through evolution/technology that nothing would be impossible for him/her. Humanism to the extreme. By this reckoning, since the ubermensch could be its own savior, there would be no need for faith or “gods” but only moral law as directed by the superhuman him/herself.
We’re talking the ultimate self-made, manifest destiny Chosen One. Do you hear the inherent danger? The ubermensch wouldn’t ever need anyone else; the ubermensch would be its own authority on everything; and the ubermensch could technically do no wrong. After all, as we saw with Nazism, the theory dictated that if these superior humans were capable of doing or taking something then by virtue of their superiority they deserved to. It’s a formula for atrocity.
Over and against this, though, a couple of Jewish boys from Cleveland with an interest in sci-fi art were producing a new kind of hero. He, too, was an other-worldly being superior to the average masses. But he was also designed with an unwavering commitment to selflessness. So, even though “Superman” is another literal way to translate ubermensch, this character was undergirded by truth, justice, and the American way.
One of the creator’s, Jerry Siegel, explained that their famous character was shaped by a combination of “being unemployed and worried during the Depression and knowing hopelessness and fear” and “hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany.” Here was a Chosen One who could be everything none of us could be for ourselves, who would do the right things the right way even though, honestly, he could’ve done whatever he wanted with his power.
It turns out, millions (billions?) of people loved the idea.
And the stark differences between these two interpretations of superhumanity represent the poles of our human nature. They also shed light on why we struggle to serve as fruitful minor characters in the story of the Chosen One: most of us would rather be the ultra-human than be rescued by one.
Choose Your Role
To be clear, I’m not knocking human agency or a person’s desire to be their best possible human; and I’m not saying that the key to life is only to rely on a grand problem-solver who drops down out of the sky just in time, every time, to save the day. I’m just saying that one of the central struggles of all of life, as reflected in the recurring theme of the Chosen One, is for each of us to decide whether we are the main character on whom the fate of the story rests, or if there could be Another, One who is perfect for it — the Only One, rightly, who could ever handle it all and come through.
Anna and Simeon are powerful characters because they discovered the latter. They were humble enough to be okay that Jesus was the One, and not they. Remember, in the moment of their meeting, the Messiah was just a peasant baby. These two prophets were his senior in age and experience, in status among the people as servants of God, and in the hardship they’d endured through years of waiting. But still they advanced his mission. They handed down the blessings that they had to give. They became two of the first people on earth to publicly affirm Jesus’ true identity. And then they willfully faded into the scenery.
That is powerful. And incredibly difficult to do. But it was the second and final big step towards their full and fruitful participation in the greatest story of all. It solidified them, yes, as mere minor characters, but minor only in the sense that they were standing on-stage beside God himself.
I think it’s what Christmas is all about.
Core Christian teaching declares that, because human beings elevated themselves above God, we became fallen and broken, right down to our very nature. Even our own ability to detect our brokenness, let alone to deal with it, is faulty. So, Christian teaching also declares that, from the beginning, even in the moment of our betrayal, God devised a mission to save us. It was a mission to redeem us and reconcile us back to him and to one another, and a mission to restore the world. If all of that is so, then we live within the universe’s original and authentic Chosen One story.
One good way to forfeit a role in the story is to deny or ignore our need for the Chosen One; the other is to try to assume his place for ourselves. But if we can admit that we are only minor characters, then we have a chance to choose which kind we are going to be, and we can be the kind who take up the cause of Christ Jesus.
For my part, I think that is the perfect place to be. Thanks be to God, and Merry Christmas.