While Advent and Christmas look different for many of us this year—just as Good Friday and Easter did earlier in 2020—the themes of this season have taken on even greater significance. In a year featuring an ongoing pandemic, as well as a reckoning with our deep societal divisions, it’s important that we take time to recognize not just Christ’s birth, but also the divine love that birth represents. The five Sundays of Advent offer a call to have hope and faith in times of difficulty, to seek joy and share it with others, and to work for peace in our world and our relationships.
Seeking out movies that reflect these ideas is a great way to engage with Advent, even if we can’t celebrate it in community. Here are five films, available to watch online, that follow the themes marked by the candles on a traditional Advent wreath.
Week 1: Hope
The Last Jedi
The first week of Advent is about believing a better world is coming, even if we’re unsure of when or how. In God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines this as “hopefully doing without.” We’re beginning this journey in the dark, waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise.
Of all the Star Wars movies, 2017’s The Last Jedi is the most occupied with the wider implications of having hope in darkness; the movie considers those themes first with uncertainty, then skepticism, and finally with renewed optimism. If 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope presented a beacon of possibility in the midst of darkness, The Last Jedi considers the state of that possibility—and its meaning beyond Star Wars’ main narrative—40 years later.
In The Last Jedi, the hope of the original saga is wearing thin. When Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in seclusion on a remote island, he’s disillusioned with the Jedi, as well as his role in the Resistance to the fascist First Order. On the other side of the galaxy, the Resistance is literally running out of fuel as Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) argue with General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) about the best way to escape the First Order.
At various points throughout The Last Jedi, characters have to grapple with the strained state of their hope. Can the jaded Luke let himself believe that Rey represents a hopeful future for the Jedi order? Are Finn, Poe, and Rose humble enough to recognize that the Resistance’s mission doesn’t rest solely in their hands?
Writer-director Rian Johnson also wisely expands the saga’s understanding of who hope includes, including a subplot in which Finn and Rose visit the casino city of Canto Bight and meet its exploited workers. In the movie’s final scene, a young Canto Bight stable boy uses the Force to pick up a broom, then looks at the Resistance ring Rose gave him. It’s a moment that brings to mind the angels’ message of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, reminding us that everyone, no matter how lowly, has a role to play in the gospel narrative.
Week 2: Faith
The Bishop’s Wife
It’s difficult but necessary to separate the spiritual elements of Advent and Christmas from secular culture’s materialism and gift-giving. Week two of Advent reminds us to consider the selflessness and humility that make up the roots of our faith. The Bishop’s Wife, from 1947, is similarly concerned with using Advent and Christmas to refocus our priorities.
The movie’s protagonist, Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), has lost sight of what’s important. He’s so focused on raising money for a new cathedral and currying favor with wealthy parishioners that it’s pulled his attention from the true mission of the church, as well as from his duty to his wife and daughter. An angel, Dudley (Cary Grant), is dispatched to set Henry back on the right path, moving his thoughts away from legacy and back toward the relational and communal elements of ministry.
Dudley remains steadfast in his actions, even as Henry stubbornly fails to recognize the point of why the angel is there. In one scene, Henry sacrifices his principles to a prickly rich widow whose donation to the cathedral is contingent on including a gaudy memorial to her late husband. Dudley angelically sticks Henry to his chair, refusing to let him leave until he makes the widow back off on her selfish demands. Dudley later visits this woman on his own and convinces her to redirect her funds from building a cathedral to giving to the poor.
Dudley also commandeers Henry’s Christmas Eve sermon notes, replacing them with his own lesson on the importance of selflessness and humility over materialism and vanity. It’s this sermon that concludes the film, as Henry remarks on how we’ve forgotten that Jesus, in the form of a helpless child, is the core of the holiday, calling for us to exhibit “loving kindness, warm hearts, and the stretched-out hand of tolerance—all the shining gifts that make peace on earth.” The Bishop’s Wife is a surprising and effective call to move away from the dominant materialism of Christmas and to store up treasures in heaven.
Week 3: Joy
At Christmas, we tend to think of joy as an emotion to be expressed—as in, “joy to the world.” But joy is also a way of living. In Galatians 5, Paul includes joy as a fruit of the spirit, the product of a life lived according to the love we have in God through Christ.
The effects of God’s love should be evident in how we conduct ourselves and treat others. Paul King’s Paddington movies embody this idea. Paddington 2 considers how joy spreads to others when we live lovingly and selflessly. Paddington the bear brings a mindset of joy to every situation and person he encounters, one that comes from the love others have given him.
Paddington 2 starts with a flashback to when, as a cub in Peru, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) was rescued from a waterfall by his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon), who sacrificed their dreams of visiting London to raise him. In present-day London, where he’s joined the quirky Brown family, Paddington lives by the creed Aunt Lucy taught him: “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.”
Paddington’s attitude lets him find the good in others and help them lead happier lives. When Paddington is framed for theft by the Browns’ neighbor (Hugh Grant) and sent to prison, he brings that same worldview to an unpleasant situation. Paddington turns the prison from grim to bright, and the prisoners from grumpy to joyful.
To reflect this, King suffuses Paddington 2 with bright colors and upbeat music whenever joy is present; he also employs gray, drab tones when it’s not. Paddington’s neighborhood is warm and vibrant when he’s around and overcast and quiet when he’s gone. Paddington’s life in prison starts gray, dark, and unhappy, but becomes progressively pastel-colored the longer he’s there. The prisoners’ uniforms go from gray and white to pink. In one scene, as a calypso song titled “Love Thy Neighbour” plays, the prison cafeteria transforms into a tea room with cafe tables, bunting, and pastries, while the cell block becomes festooned with flowers.
The London of Paddington 2 is defined by creativity, love, and diversity. King specifically designs it to be a place we want to be and never want to leave. He also suggests, through the film’s charming bear hero, that it’s a world we can make a reality if we embody an ethos of positivity and kindness. Paddington 2 tells us that if we all try to live with determined joy, we can make the world a little brighter.
We tend to think of joy as an emotion to be expressed—as in, “joy to the world.” But joy is also a way of living.
Week 4: Peace
Christian Carion’s 2005 movie Joyeux Noel depicts the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, when World War I soldiers on both sides of the trenches declared an unofficial cease-fire and shared gestures of goodwill toward each other. German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other over the trenches, erected Christmas trees, and even played soccer together. In Carion’s film, the dramatized celebration includes German, Scottish, and French troops.
Bookended by brutal battle, the centerpiece of Joyeux Noel is the truce itself, which begins when a German soldier, Sprink (Benno Fürmann), a renowned tenor in his civilian life, starts singing Christmas carols as the Scottish soldiers accompany him on their bagpipes from across the battlefield. Eventually the lieutenants call a temporary truce and the men come out of their trenches to fraternize. A Latin mass led by a Scottish priest (Gary Lewis) allows them to observe Christmas together in a common language.
The shots of Sprink singing in the snow as the tinsel on the German Christmas trees tinkles gently in the background feel magical. Magical, too, is the distant light those trees cast on no man’s land, as the exhausted troops listen to the priest read the liturgy, and on the soldiers’ faces as a visiting soprano (Diane Kruger) sings “Ave Maria.” It’s clearly the most beautiful sound they’ve heard in months. For a brief moment, a blasted hellscape becomes holy ground.
We aren’t living in the middle of World War I this Advent season, but we are living through difficult, tumultuous times, where we may be experiencing verbal and emotional battles among family or loved ones who disagree with us. Our call to love one another as Christ loved, however, goes deeper than disagreement. It requires us to rediscover the common ground we have in him. Joyeux Noel is a bittersweet historical reminder that it’s possible to lay down our weapons and commune together in the spirit, however briefly.
Week 5: Hope, Faith, Joy, and Peace—Realized in Christ
Ben Is Back
Peter Hedges’ drama Ben Is Back may seem like a bleak suggestion for Christmas viewing. However, its themes couldn’t be more appropriate. The movie’s tragic elements are superseded by its moving illustration of the grace that Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection give to us, and the fierce love that brought that grace into being.
On Christmas Eve, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts), her daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and her two younger children return from pageant practice to find Ben (Lucas Hedges), the oldest Burns son, waiting for them in the yard. A recovering opioid addict, Ben is supposed to be in rehab, but has decided to come home for the holiday. Holly is ecstatic to see her son, but knows she can’t trust him. She tells him he can stay for 24 hours and must be in her sight at all times. When drug dealers steal the family’s dog while the family is at church, Holly and Ben are sent on an odyssey that forces them both to reckon with the depth of Ben’s past actions.
Ben Is Back documents the pair’s journey with stripped-down camerawork and very little music, leaving almost nothing to filter what we see except for Holly and Ben’s individual reactions. Ben is ashamed and questions whether he deserves the many chances at redemption he’s been given. Holly, while shocked at what she learns about Ben’s life as an addict, is mainly concerned for her son and becomes even more determined to help him get better.
In many ways, Ben Is Back mirrors the parable of the prodigal son, with Holly’s love for her child standing in for God the Father’s love for us. Like the prodigal son, Ben represents those of us Christ came to save. The fact that the film takes place over Christmas only serves to drive home the importance of God’s grace even more. Love came down at Christmas to save all of us, including the lost, the needy, the sick, the betrayers, and the betrayed.