Despite a few recent disappointments, my husband and I have not yet lost our affection for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) which in its first wave brought us heroes like Captain America, Thor, and Tony Stark/Ironman. And Guardians of the Galaxy is one of our favourite films, so it was with great delight (and a blessedly mild case of COVID) that we recently sat down to watch the Guardians “Holiday Special” on Disney+, released just in time for Christmas.
It was everything we’ve come to expect from the Guardians movies: generous splashes of their trademark quirky humour, overt anachronisms, and nostalgia-inducing mixtapes. There’s a hilarious premise and an original comedic number by American rock group, Old ’97s, masquerading as alien rock band Bzermikitokolok and the Knowheremen (yes, really).
The forty-four-minute feature follows extra-terrestrial heroes Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) as they attempt to save Christmas for their friend Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) by kidnapping actor Kevin Bacon—the hero of Peter’s many stories about Earth—and bringing him back as a Christmas gift.
Of course, havoc ensues as Kevin Bacon (understandably) resists capture, and Peter is forced to reprimand his friends for engaging in what is undeniably human trafficking.
In the midst of everything that we have come to identify with Christmas, we no longer know what to do with Jesus. He is bewildering, puzzling—even alien.
The feature is wonderfully entertaining and heart-warming, but there’s a particular scene that caught my eye. When Mantis and Drax first land on Earth, they spend a day in Hollywood searching for Kevin Bacon and posing for photos with tourists on the Hollywood Walk of Fame alongside other (fake) superheroes. At one point, while raking in dollar bills and revelling in the joy and profits of their surprisingly lucrative new venture, Drax and Mantis come across a nativity scene. There’s a weighty, cinematic pause as the aliens stop to gaze, clearly puzzled, at the somewhat drab ceramic figures amidst the gaudy Christmas decorations, over-the-top superhero costumes, and tourists taking selfies.
I’m not sure if director James Gunn (who was raised Roman Catholic) intended the scene as a satire on Western consumerism or as a comment on the irrelevance of modern Christianity. But for me, it’s a moment of rare cinematic brilliance that pinpoints a startling truth.
In the midst of everything that we have come to identify with Christmas, we no longer know what to do with Jesus. He is bewildering, puzzling—even alien. His very presence among all the decorations and songs celebrating his birth seems unexpected and a little anticlimactic. It’s like Cinderella turning up to her ball, but she’s still dressed in rags. His name is on all the invitations and the colourful birthday banners, but his name doesn’t ring a bell with the guests. There is no room for him in his own stable.
Jesus has, in essence, become a society-wide anachronism—the type of anachronism that the Guardians franchise normally loves to revel in. He is out of place—like a mixtape belonging to a half-alien demigod or a Guess-branded wristwatch on a Klingon warrior. He doesn’t fit in amidst the glitz and the excess. The aliens Mantis and Drax are depicted as comfortably at home amongst our more materialistic, self-focussed Christmas traditions. But when it comes to the child by whose birth we organise our history (no matter what one believes about the significance of his death), they stand there in a moment of quiet befuddlement. Who is this child?
Western culture has been attempting to deal with Jesus, not by erasing him altogether, but by sidelining him.
For years now, western culture has been attempting to deal with Jesus, not by erasing him altogether, but by sidelining him. On our smartphone keyboards, we have emojis for squids and zombies (three emojis, in fact, with different hair lengths to appropriately accommodate a range of zombie gender expressions), sauropods and stacks of money with wings, a man in a business suit levitating and an alembic (think chemistry apparatus), but none for Jesus or God. Shopping centres—our shrines to materialism—silently relegate the nativity scene to obscure corners, dwarfed and overshadowed by towering Christmas trees and dazzling coloured lights.
It’s a crafty sleight-of-hand, a clever bait-and-switch. Jesus is the child seen but not heard, the figure at the centre of human history who stands silently in the shadows.
Except that Jesus is a man, not a child, and it is not so easy to consign the man Jesus to obscurity. I wonder what Drax and Mantis would make of the spectacle of the cross—its conquest of the dark powers and supervillains of this world (Colossians 2:15). How would they respond to Jesus who called Pharisaical hypocrites a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34) and who overturned the tables of the moneylenders (Matthew 21:12)? What would they do in the presence of the resurrected Jesus with eyes of blazing fire, feet of polished bronze, and a face as bright as the brightest sun (Revelation 1:12-18)?
In a world that relegates Jesus to the back row of his own birthday party, how do we reverse the pattern? With more meaningful trappings?
But Jesus is revealed in shame. He chose to suffer outside the camp so that we would be welcome inside (Hebrews 13:11-12). And he invites us, should we choose to go to him, to bear the disgrace he bore (Hebrews 13:13-14); to be an object of curiosity, of befuddlement, perhaps even of repugnance as we spurn the false gods of this world. To follow Jesus is to become alien—perhaps even to those who know and love us best (Psalm 69:8). It is to learn to suffer bravely and become patient in affliction (Romans 12:12).
But we are not alone in this, friends. This Christmas season will overwhelm us, as it does every year. It will appear “inevitable”—just as Thanos declares in Avengers: Endgame. And it will be shiny, lovely, and wonderfully enchanting. It will arrive promising novelty, even while delivering the same old gift underneath new wrapping paper. At times its spectacle will seem far more appealing than the spectacle of the child born to die.
But despite those seemingly impossible odds, we have a hero who has already conquered; who stood alone and valiantly overcame. We know the one who laid down his life, not for his own glory or fame or immortality, but to welcome us who were aliens to him (Colossians 1:21). And if that seems like something too bewildering for the people of Earth—let alone visitors from across the galaxy—then be of good cheer. Our Director knows what he is doing. The ending will be good.