Which Christmas movie is the greatest? Some say a classic like It’s a Wonderful Life or Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Some say a more recent movie like Elf or The Polar Express. Some say, quite controversially, that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie. But in my opinion, unsurprisingly, the greatest Christmas movie of all time is Star Wars: A New Hope.
The events of Star Wars: A New Hope culminate in the so-called “Battle of Yavin,” the battle between the Rebels and the Empire, at the end of which the first Death Star is destroyed. With the Empire defeated, and a new Jedi on the scene, hope returns to the galaxy. This is a significant turning point in the Star Wars universe, so significant that it actually changes how time is measured. From then on, time is measured in terms of years BBY—Before the Battle of Yavin—and years ABY—After the Battle of Yavin. And that is why Star Wars: A New Hope is the greatest Christmas movie of all time: Because that is exactly what happened on the first Christmas. When Christ was born, the empire of Satan was defeated, a new King came on the scene, and hope returned to our galaxy. This was a significant turning point in our universe, so significant that it actually changed how time was measured. From then on, time was measured in terms of years BC—Before Christ—and years AD—After Christ. Christmas, in other words, is the original “New Hope,” and it brings us hope today even as it did two-thousand years ago.
If we look at our world today, we might not find much cause for hope. Our world seems to be in decline, even as the Roman Empire did in the third century AD. For many years, the Romans had a whole pantheon of gods they believed in. But by the third century AD, faith in these traditional gods had begun to wane. Like the ancient Romans, we modern Americans have also put our faith in a whole pantheon of gods. We haven’t called these figures gods, but we’ve worshiped them as gods, nonetheless. These figures have been leaders in politics, religion, and science; they’ve been cultural icons in sports and entertainment; and they’ve been philanthropists of all sorts. Recently, we’ve begun to lose faith in these gods. Many of these figures whom we used to hold in great esteem, and to revere as almost semi-divine, have fallen from grace and have been discredited.
Amidst their own twilight of the gods, and the decline of their empire, the Romans tried to restore hope through the worship of the sun god. In the year 274 AD, the Roman Emperor Aurelian established the worship of the sun god as an official religion of the Roman Empire and he designated December 25th as the feast day of the sun god. This date was chosen to give people hope. Every year, as the days grew shorter, and the power of the sun seemed to wane, there was a fear that this year would be the end. There was a fear that the sun would never return to its full power, and total darkness would eventually come. The celebration of the sun god on December 25th calmed that fear and brought new hope. As the winter solstice passed, and the light began to increase again, there was a promise of another year.
Now you may have heard that this is the reason why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th. You may have heard that the early Church simply adopted this day as its own, “baptizing,” as it were, this pagan feast and making it a Christian one. This theory was first proposed in the eighteenth century, and it has become quite popular since then. There is, however, strong evidence to suggest that that is not what actually happened.
According to Jewish tradition, the day on which God began His work of creation was the same day on which God saved the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, the day of Passover. Both of these events, according to Jewish tradition, took place on the fourteenth of Nisan, a day on the Jewish calendar that occurred in early spring. Now the early Church knew that Jesus also died on this day because they knew from the gospels that He died on Passover. In made sense to the early Church, then, that this too would be the day on which Jesus was conceived. After all, if God said “Let there be light” on the same day He saved the Jewish people from physical slavery, it made sense that Jesus, the Light of the World, would be conceived on the same day He saved us from slavery to sin.
The only thing left for the early Church to do, then, was to determine the date on which Jesus died according to the non-Jewish calendars that were around at that time. His birth date could then be easily calculated by adding nine months, since the day He died was the same day He was conceived. Around the year 200 AD, 74 years before the feast day of the sun god was established, a Christian from North Africa by the name of Tertullian determined the day on which Jesus died according to the Roman Calendar. He came up with March 25th. Other Christians in the East, who were using a Greek rather than Roman calendar, later came up with a slightly different day: April 6th. Thus, in the West, the date for Christmas was established as December 25th, and in the East as January 6th.
The early Church, then, didn’t celebrate Christmas on December 25th in order to compete with the feast day of the Roman sun god. They celebrated it that day, because Jesus Christ was the true God, and the sun god and all other gods were just empty, lifeless idols. They celebrated Christmas on December 25th, because Jesus was the true Light of the World, the eternal sun that never sets. They knew that even when the sun began to wane in power, Jesus did not. They knew that even when the sun could not bring physical warmth and light, Jesus could illumine their minds with His truth and warm their hearts with His love. And they knew that even when the sun could bring physical warmth and light, there was a cold and darkness that it could not take away: the cold of sin and the darkness of error. Jesus, however, could take these away. In short, the early Church celebrated Christmas on December 25th because they knew that Jesus could bring a hope that the sun god never could: a hope not just of tomorrow, a hope not just of a new year, but a hope of eternal life.
And that is the hope that Christmas brings us today. True hope can never be found in an idol, whether the idols of ancient Rome or the idols of modern America. No leader in politics, religion, or science—no cultural icon in sports or entertainment—no philanthropist—can bring us true hope, only Jesus can. When our hearts are frozen with sin, Jesus can warm them with His love. When our minds are darkened by error, Jesus can illumine with His truth. When we are gripped by the fear of death, Jesus can free us with the hope of eternal life. Let us renew our hope in Jesus this Christmas. Let us allow that hope to fill our homes and families. And let us carry that hope into the new year. Amen.