The final scene of the 2016 Star Wars spin-off movie Rogue One is one of the most celebrated in recent cinematic history. The action takes place immediately prior to the beginning of 1977’s epic Star Wars. The plans to the Death Star have been stolen from Imperial forces by daring rebels. Darth Vader’s pursuing spaceship catches up with the fleeing rebels, and as doors are forced open Vader’s unmistakable and ominous breathing wafts through the darkness. The rebel soldiers cower, and the next thing the viewer sees is Darth Vader’s blood red light saber, as Vader moves relentlessly toward and through the rebel soldiers, sowing mayhem and death as he goes. Just as Darth Vader is about to reclaim the Death Star plans, the rebel escape ship ejects and flies away, out of Vader’s clutches for the moment, but frighteningly vulnerable and small in the enormity of space.
In the story arc of the Star Wars saga, that scene at the end of Rogue One is the nadir, the darkest moment, when all is but lost. It is a cinematic moment similar to those chronicled in our Old and New Testament readings today. In Daniel, the seer has chronicled a lengthy vision of competing nations vying for power and control, as regular people suffer as pawns in a child’s game played by grown-up men. Regular people feel desperate, vulnerable, and impotent to control their own lives. Their world is, indeed, an increasingly dark place.
In Mark, Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley to Jerusalem and sees the massive Jewish temple—larger than any building we’ve ever seen or ever will see—and knows in his imagination what is coming: That soon the Romans will crush the temple to rubble, that the world as the Jewish people have known it is ending never to return, and that the ending will bring fear, disruption, and pain. Worst yet, in the midst of it all, some will arise with easy, tantalizing, and soothing words that palliate for a moment, but do nothing to make the world a better place.
These readings hit home for me, as perhaps they did for you. A world in flux, and not for the better, seems reminiscent of our own experience, writ both small and large. I’ve recently been at the bedside of people important to me and to us, who are suffering and dying. Images of wildfires in California, of scorched land and scorched people, sear the consciousness as they sear the landscape. Three deaths at Lamar High School in the past week touch everyone in this room with, at most, one or two degrees of separation. They are shocking because they are so close, but they are also hauntingly familiar, since we read about similar deaths elsewhere now as virtually routine.
And none of that even touches upon our ongoing national and international saga, in which community and conversation continue to break down as we silo with like minds and assume the very worst of anyone who disagrees with us, and as we become ever more fearful that any unguarded comment we make may fracture our relationships with those we love and those with whom we’ve built our lives. “There shall be a time of anguish,” Daniel says. That seems about right. “The stones on which you’ve relied will crumble” Matthew says. That seems about right.
Rewatching that final scene of Rogue One this past week, seeing that tableau with the tiny speck of the fleeing rebel spaceship against the foreboding darkness of deep space, underscored for me how tenuous the future is for every generation, including our own. But as I looked at that tableau of the little spaceship in the darkness it also brought to mind the aphorism, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
That saying is traced back both to England, when Thomas Fuller wrote it in 1650, and to Ireland, where it seems to have lived in folk culture perhaps forever. It also turns out that, to some extent, the saying is more than a metaphor. For half of each month—the two weeks immediately following a new moon—the moon can be seen after sunset but not before sunrise. Just before dawn the moon is hidden, its light omitted from the night sky. And so, half the time, just before the first glimpse of sunlight appears over the eastern horizon, it is literally darkest before the dawn.[i]
In the movie Rogue One, just as Darth Vader is about to overtake the last of the rebels and the small rebel escape ship ejects to tentative safety, a rebel soldier enters the little ship’s bridge and offers the Death Star plans to what appears at first to be an angelic woman dressed in white. As she turns to receive them, we see that it is Princess Leia, with the youthful and radiant countenance we remember from 1977. (That’s the wonder of digital technology today.) The soldier says, “Your highness, the transmission we received. What is it they’ve sent us?” And the Princess replies with a single word, “Hope.”
Both Daniel and Mark foretell darkness today, but that isn’t all they foretell. The saying “darkest before the dawn” includes the invocation of daybreak. It assumes that the darkness will not last forever, that the emergence of light is not only expected, but assured. It implies that final word from Rogue One, spoken from the lips of Princess Leia: “Hope.”
What is hope? Dictionaries will define it as “a desire for something to happen” or “wanting something to be the case.” But those are secular definitions, synonymous with what we might call wishful thinking. They certainly don’t fit the bill of what Princess Leia means with her movie-ending utterance. For her, hope is the result of dogged planning, extreme risk, and grievous sacrifice by many. Hope is born not of wishful thinking, but through preparation and participation in a future that is not yet.
Hope is not, in the end, a secular word. It is the preeminent Christian word, the word that rightly defines us in the world. At the end of today’s Mark reading Jesus says the suffering his people will endure is not the suffering of despair—what Viktor Frankl calls suffering without meaning—but the suffering of birth pangs, the suffering that is the prelude to new life. At the heart of Daniel’s prophecy today is not anguish, but resurrection. New birth and resurrection are sentiments of hope.
So what is hope? Hope is, first, trust that God is up to something even when we cannot easily see it. Hope is believing, even though things we cherish may crumble, as people we love may die, as old ways may burn away, that God is preparing for the birth of something new, both in our individual lives—in each of us—and for our world. But that alone is not hope. Hope is not merely the religious version of wishful thinking, the pithy gesture of “thoughts and prayers” so often heard today. Hope also includes our trust and belief taking action, working doggedly in concert with God, taking risks and making sacrifices for goodness and grace in our individual lives and in the world. Hope is not just something we have; it is something we enact, something we do. Hope is preparation for and participation in a future that is not yet, because by our cooperation with God, especially in the moments when the stones crumble and the darkness seems most opaque, the not yet begins its birth, and the first glimmer of dawn emerges on the horizon.
Darkness is real, but it is darkest just before the dawn. And the dawn begins to break when those who side with goodness and grace have hope and live hope. Then, Daniel says, the very angels of God will arise and work with us in tandem. The old may give way, but in its place God will resurrect; God will birth something new. And we ourselves will shine, Daniel promises, “like the brightness of the sky…like stars forever and ever.” That’s something worth hoping for.