Happy Star Wars week! This piece is part of a series on God in sci-fi and fantasy. Read the other entries here.
Author’s Note: Eight and a half years after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it’s fairly accepted that J.K. Rowling’s well-loved series has messianic undertones. A quick Google search reveals articles and books tackling the similarities between Harry and Jesus. It almost seems like an elaborate, hilarious, long con on Rowling’s part, to endure years of criticism and a refusal to recognize the gospel in her epic story by fellow Christians — which in itself is appropriate, given the fact that Jesus "came unto his own, and his own received him not."
So instead of getting into the academic weeds about J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and Jesus Christ, I thought I’d offer (yet another) Advent reflection instead.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)
John’s gospel has always been my favorite. Instead of a synopsis of Jesus’ life and ministry, John creates an overarching narrative of what that life and ministry meant. It’s written almost poetically, by a man who had a close, intimate experience of Jesus and who chooses to define himself by the love he experienced from that friendship. It is a gospel that captures your imagination.
One verse in particular that has always stirred my imagination is John 1:5. Some versions translate “overcome” as “understood,” which provides an interesting opportunity for contemplation. We can imagine light overcoming darkness — we can easily visualize it. But what does it mean for darkness to understand light? How does the light comprehend the darkness?
And as the “Light of the world,” how does Jesus overcome the darkness?
By immersing himself in it. I like the way the Message paraphrases John 14: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” In order for the Light to enter the darkness it had to reduce itself and put aside its own glory and power. The Light had to learn and understand all the nuances and contours of what it is like to dwell in the “dominion of darkness,” to learn obedience to God despite enduring suffering, and to understand how darkness worked.
In other words, The Light gets to know its enemy.
But perhaps the reason why the darkness cannot understand or overcome the Light is because it will not and cannot imagine reducing itself or condescend to be like its enemy in order to overcome it. Scripture describes an adversary who wanted to be like God, but doesn’t seem to understand that God’s very nature is “gentle and humble and heart,” a God who loves enemies into submission.
Even if you don’t believe in an actual spiritual adversary, the nature of darkness is not a generous one. It doesn’t offer light or heat or allow other things to grow. It isolates.
This conflict between light and darkness is so brilliantly illustrated in the character of Harry Potter. Voldemort, the Dark Lord, tries to overcome by force — by manipulation, coercion, and self-protection. But Harry realizes that in order to win, he needs to put himself in mortal peril by understanding Voldemort — by hunting Horcruxes instead of seeking power or self-protection, and, eventually, by sacrificing himself.
Separated from his parents and raised in a place where his own did not receive him, Harry becomes empathetic and compassionate as a result of suffering orphanhood and — let’s face it — child abuse. He has an unusual capacity to empathize with a wide range of people and creatures — his friends, house elves, and even Lord Voldemort, his evil antagonist.
Voldemort was also orphaned and raised in less-than-ideal conditions. Yet instead of letting those circumstances make him compassionate and empathetic, he chose the dark arts, along with hate and evil.
Using an Unforgivable curse, a particularly evil form of dark magic, Voldemort tries to kill the baby Harry. But the sacrificial love of his mother protects Harry from the curse, which bounces back to Voldemort, causing a piece of the Dark Lord’s soul to enter Harry, inextricably linking them. Neither will be able to survive, as long as the other lives.
This piece of darkness that enters Harry makes some attempt to gather intelligence, once Voldemort realizes it’s there. But it never tries to understand who Harry is or what motivates him. As Dumbledore points out, “If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love.”
On the other hand, through Dumbledore’s help, Harry learns his enemy. He even has some measure of compassion for Tom Riddle, the boy who became Voldemort, and strategizes based on who he knows his enemy to be. He knows that he must die in order to save his friends and defeat Voldemort and he does it willingly, which is something the Dark Lord could never conceive of doing (as evinced by his choice to split his soul into pieces rather than experience death himself). Harry’s sacrificial love, like his mother’s for him, saves not just his friends, but his enemies in the end.
Advent is a season in which we remember that “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” This Light knows intimately what it is like to dwell in darkness, because it lived here, too. It knows what it is like to suffer, not only in the daily hardships of life on earth but through the salvific work of the cross. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have been delivered from the “dominion of darkness” and into a kingdom which promises that one day we won’t even need a sun, because God will be our light.
This Advent, as we light our candles in the darkening days, let us remember Dumbledore’s wise words: "Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light."