I do love music, and love different kinds of music. But of all the music I know, this Christmas carol is one of those I love best. That it is centuries-old is important to me, as I have consciously chosen to root myself in the deeper, longer story of human life under the sun that grows out of what is called “mere Christianity,” that central corridor of faith, hope and love that courses through time.
That it was written by a man with a vocation in the marketplace is of interest to me too. A lawyer and politician in the 4th-century, Aurelius Prudentius was also a poet influenced by teachers like Tertullian and Ambrose. For hundreds of years it was sung in medieval plainchant, a thousand years later it appeared in a Finnish song book in 1582, Piae Cantones, and it was first sung in English in the 1850s in a collection, Carols for Christmastide. People have been singing these words for a long time.
I thought of this song while watching the new Star Wars film this past weekend. [Possible spoiler alert!] It has been most of 40 years since I first saw the words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” With the rest of the world, I was taken by the original story, intrigued by its ideas and themes. Already very committed to “not leaving my brain at the box-office,” I wondered about the worldview of George Lucas, and the ways he offered his grand narrative to the watching world. Not a materialist, not a theist, by his own account his view of life and the world was more pantheist, some amalgam of Buddhism and more— a story of an unseen force, of good and evil, and yet and yet. And with my developing convictions about the meaning of popular culture, I even found an honest way to bring R2D2 into my master’s thesis, which I was writing at the time!
But what caught my attention then, and still does now, is the perplexing, poignant story of fathers and sons. Beyond all the cosmic complexity of the universe Lucas has created— and now J.J. Abrams is interpreting as the director of “The Force Awakens” —the thread that binds the story together, episode to episode, is one of the most ancient and most tender of all, that of fathers and sons.
While amazed at the technological imagination of Lucasfilm Inc., what makes the story one that human beings as human beings are drawn into is that it is a story we all know, a story we have been telling since the beginning of history. From Abraham and Isaac on through the Prodigal Son, from the Odyssey to Oedipus, we have written this story time and again. And if we moderns have ears to hear, we know that Les Miserables is its own reading of this ancient tale, a thousand-pages of the “prodigal son” in 19th-century France, with the priest being a father to a son, Bishop Bienvenu to Jean Valjean, a drama played out on the stages of the world, night after night. Simply said, we never tire of hearing this story.
So when we are drawn into this new episode, and find out more of the mysterious genealogy of the Star Wars universe, we take it in with practiced wisdom, not altogether surprised that so-and-so is the son of…. and that so-and-so is the father of…. Could it really be any other story?
I confess, frail man that I am in every way that matters, when I watched Han Solo meet his son on the precarious bridge, and heard him pleading, “Come home!” my soul shivered. Like Abraham, like the Waiting Father of Jesus’ parable, I know this story, inside and out. For most of my life, it has been my story, and it only becomes more so.
And somehow Aurelius Prudentius knew this story too, writing a poem reflecting on a Father who loved “ere the worlds began to be”— longer even than “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” —and therefore a story which makes sense of these days called Christmas.
(For a lovely rendition of this song–