(RNS) — It’s time once more to tell the old familiar story, set on the outskirts of an ancient and powerful empire, of a child born of a virgin and destined to save the world.
His arrival is seen as the long-awaited fulfillment of ancient prophecy, and as he grows, the child’s mother and his teachers marvel at his abilities.
One day, the Devil comes to tempt the boy, now grown into a young man, and offers him power and glory and the chance to rule the world — and even the ability to defy death itself — if only he will bow down and worship his tempter.
“Sounds good to me,” the boy replies.
The epic saga of Anakin Skywalker, failed messiah, father of Luke and Leia, grandfather of Ben Solo, comes to its conclusion this Christmas season with the release of “The Rise of Skywalker” — the last of nine Star Wars stories focused on Anakin and his family’s attempts to save and rule the universe.
The power of Star Wars has always come from its spiritual underpinnings, which are everywhere in the story.
The battle for the soul of Anakin and his family revolves around the Force, the mystical power that “binds the galaxy together,” as Skywalker family mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi describes it.
A mashup of Buddhist spirituality and the Holy Ghost, the Force is wielded by Jedi Knights and their rivals, the Sith Lords, each convinced that only they understand its true nature and power.
After the release of the first Star Wars film, Obi-Wan became the patron saint of new religion — Jediism — and Sir Alec Guinness, who played the desert sage, found himself turned into a spiritual guru, with fans turning to him for advice.
“I get some pretty strange letters,” Guinness told talk show host Michael Parkinson in 1977: “My wife and I are having problems, can you come over and live with us for a few months (and sort it out)?”
Guinness’ character even did a turn as Jesus, laying down his life for his friends so they can escape the Death Star.
“You can’t win,” he told Darth Vader during their epic duel. “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
The films include ritual prayers — “The Force will be with you always” — and feats of spiritual power that border on miraculous. There’s also a convert’s tale: Han Solo, the smuggler turned rebel, who once claimed that “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” Solo later becomes a true believer who claims it’s all true.
There’s even a fight over which Star Wars stories belong in the canon.
My own run-in with religion and Star Wars came during a chance encounter at the Atlanta airport in the summer of 1980, just as “The Empire Strikes Back” had hit theaters and provided Star Wars mania a new jolt. The Rebel Alliance had blown up the Death Star, the Empire had struck back and we were all dreaming of becoming Jedi.
Our church youth group was on its way to a conference in Colorado when we spied a familiar face.
He sat quietly in a chair at the gate, listening to his Walkman, reading a book and trying to make himself invisible.
No such luck.
“Oh my God,” one of my friends said, pointing at him. “It’s Luke Skywalker.”
Two minutes later we’d surrounded Mark Hamill, the boy-next-door actor who played Luke, just returned from a trip to Japan.
At the time, Hamill was probably the most famous person in the world, perhaps as well-known as Jesus Christ himself.
And yet for about 20 minutes, he seemed happy to hang out with some high school kids and show off his new Walkman — “These are going to be big,” he told us. He listened as we told him about the big church conference we were headed to and even signed autographs.
I got his signature on a slip of notepaper and immediately stuck it in my Bible. (I’d like to say it was in the Gospel of Luke but can’t remember.) Then the call came for our plane; he bid us farewell, and we were off, still buzzing about our close encounter with the stars.
He was a kind of hero to us all. The kind of person we’d all wanted to become. Famous beyond compare and yet kind and funny as hell.
And in that moment together with Hamill, we felt like we’d been blessed by something special.
Hamill seems to have done pretty well for himself over the past four decades, becoming a beloved voice-over actor, Twitter celebrity and devoted family man, celebrating 40 years of marriage to his wife, Marilou, last year.
Luke had a harder time.
His dad turned out to be a monster. He got old and bitter, and his attempts to rebuild the Jedi order failed. His nephew and star pupil, Kylo Ren, turned against him. Even though his dad was saved in the end, the sins of Darth Vader were visited upon his children and grandchildren.
Luke gave up the faith and retreated from the universe, spending his days on a rocky island, in the company of “Jedi Fish Nuns” known as Caretakers, content to curse the darkness and his own failings.
And yet the darkness did not overcome him. When his friends needed him most, he came to their aid, and like his mentor and friend Obi-Wan, laid down his life for those he loved.
I don’t know if Kylo Ren will be saved from the Dark Side or if evil will prevail in the final Star Wars movie, due out Dec. 20. Lately, successful endings to our most beloved series, whether on the big screen or small, have eluded their creators.
But like Luke, I will have faith — faith in a character who will give himself up for something bigger than he is. Faith in a made-up story that’s true because it brings us all together in wonder and awe.
For me, it’s a story whose greatest thrill was the chance to discover at the heart of it the simple kindness of Mark Hamill at that Atlanta airport, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
May the Force be with us all.