Every Christmas we celebrate sacrifice. Yes, it’s fair to say we celebrate the coming of our Messiah to save us. Nevertheless, Jesus’s very leaving the joy of His seat in heaven and becoming human was sacrifice in itself.
People all around us sacrifice all day. Parents sacrifice for their children. Soldiers sacrifice for their country. It’s hard, because it’s the complete giving up of self for the benefit of others. Our natural inclination is to be selfish, and it’s no wonder that in the most powerful stories, the pinnacle of characters’ arcs is sacrifice.
Not every climax is sacrificial. Sometimes a character overcomes the antagonist by overcoming fear, guilt, or shame. Perhaps he or she becomes victorious by their intelligence or new skill learned.
Yet somehow, in the stories we treasure and remember the most, sacrifice takes center stage. The main characters realize that in order to win and save those they love, they must let go of what is most precious to them. Let’s take a tour through some of the most well-loved stories in this world to understand the different sacrifices, losses, and motivations of characters.
[Warning: Major spoilers ahead for a number of popular books and films.]
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” Paul states in Philippians 2 that Jesus did not only sacrifice His life. He sacrificed His joy in heaven of being the Son of God. While He remained fully God in flesh, He still suffered as any other person would. He received ridicule from men and He was tempted.
In this way, great sacrifice does not have to be only one’s life. People can lose things they hold dearly for what they believe in. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, many of the Narnians, including Mr. Tumnus and the Beavers, lose their security because they believe in Aslan and refuse to obey the White Witch. Characters can lose their freedom for the greater good; at the end of Dunkirk, Farrier lands his plane on the beach and stands in the light of the dawn as he is captured by the Germans.
While people read books and watch films to experience epic things they’d never experience in everyday life, sometimes those larger-than-life characters sacrifice the simple life we experience. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo goes on his quest and soon realizes that he will never have the simple, even comfortably naive, perspective he once had on the Shire. Even after the Ring is destroyed, Frodo still feels the pain of carrying it and knows he will never have a normal life. Likewise, Steve Rogers experiences the same loss when he becomes Captain America. “Family, stability–guy who wanted all that went in the ice seventy-five years ago,” he tells Tony at the end of Avengers: Age of Utron. He gave up a normal life and his love for Peggy Carter to be a hero to the world, and the audience feels the pain of all the years he lost. One could also consider La La Land a story of sacrificial love as both Sebastian and Mia sacrifice their relationship to pursue their callings.
Naturally, one cannot talk about sacrifice without bringing up the sacrifice of one’s life. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends,” Jesus states in John 15:13. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Boromir demonstrates this as he gives his life protecting Merry and Pippin. In The Hobbit (book version), Fili and Kili die protecting their uncle. Rapunzel is ready to sacrifice her freedom in Tangled, but Flynn gives up everything he has, from their relationship to his very life. In The Warden and the Wolf King, the conclusion to Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, Janner gives his life to restore his people. In The Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader sacrifices himself to save his son and thus earns redemption for himself. In Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor gives up his love for Diana and his life to stop the plane laden with poison from killing many. Brandon Sanderson beautifully concludes his Mistborn trilogy in The Hero of the Ages, as Vin and Elend give their lives to restore their whole world to harmony and light. Finally, perhaps one of the most heartbreaking stories in recent years, Rogue One, ends in the sacrifice of the six main and much beloved characters. They all give their lives doing their duties in order to save the galaxy from the tyranny of the Empire.
If the greatest love is to give one’s life for one’s friends, what sort of love gives itself for many, many people, or perhaps even the whole world? In the story of our world, Jesus is the only one who did. Storytellers can only dimly mirror this truth in their own tales.
“And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross,” Paul continues in Philippians 2. But he doesn’t end there. “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus received glory for all that he lost, because he lost it for love. Likewise, the Rogue One crew started a flame that would bring about the end of the Empire because they wanted the galaxy to live in freedom. Likewise, Steve Trevor saved the people of his world because he learned to love. Likewise, Boromir and Janner and Anakin and Flynn and Vin and Elend knew that it wasn’t about them; it was about their love. “It’s not about deserve, it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love,” Diana states in Wonder Woman. As we watch these films and read these books, as we create our own stories in which our heroes sacrifice themselves, and as we remember the greatest sacrifice ever made for us, may we be inspired to lose everything, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus in the way of love and sacrifice.