After weeks of shooting footage at a town nearby for his latest project, legendary director Martin Scorsese has finally wrapped up filming. This Advent marks the tenth anniversary of another work of Scorsese’s and my favorite Christmas movie: his Oscar-winning Hugo (2011). Although neither Santas nor Scrooges, neither mangers nor mistletoe appear in the film, it serves as a poignant parable of the “good news of great joy” that Christians celebrate.
Hugo tells the story of an orphan in 1930s Paris, after the Great War has shattered society’s innocence. Hugo’s dead father has left him a broken automaton (a primitive robot). The boy must replace all its damaged or lost parts for it to function again. Like the clockworks that form the film’s backdrop, Hugo’s repair of the robot intermeshes with his own brokenness and that of others: an orphaned girl with a mysterious key; a former pioneer filmmaker turned embittered old toy seller; an orphan-nabbing inspector afflicted by an injured leg and lonely heart; and missing pieces of film history itself. All find themselves affected for the better by Hugo’s restorative work. Hugo himself resembles Scorsese as a child—it’s as if the great director has projected himself into the plot to salvage film history and redeem his lost image in the character of that bitter former filmmaker.1
In the story of Scripture, our world is just as intermeshed and damaged as Hugo’s. The first human sin sent the cogs spinning wildly for the rest of the race and its history. Even God’s elect nation Israel could only repeat, not repair, the cycle of malfunction. But then the Creator wrote himself into the script as a child and took up our brokenness. In his birth, life, death, and resurrection, he has replaced our wrecked works with his own perfect performance and begun the world’s full restoration.
Thoughtful Christians have spoken of this renovation project in various complementary ways across the centuries. The early church father Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century) developed his doctrine of recapitulation, according to which Christ reversed Adam’s failure detail for detail so as to found humanity afresh on himself. At the Reformation, John Calvin portrayed Christ as summing up Israel’s history through his triple office as prophet, priest, and king. In the last century, Middle-earth’s inventor J. R. R. Tolkien saw the gospel as the true myth that fulfills all the primal human longings expressed in our storytelling (not least in Hugo). His contemporary, playwright and novelist Dorothy Sayers, wrote of the dogma of the Incarnation as a divine drama staged by and starring our Maker.
The depth of Christ’s reparative action matches its breadth. Sin has rendered each of us, like Hugo’s broken automaton, utterly unable to operate as we ought. To use the old and scandalous term, humanity is totally depraved: no piece of who we are—conscience, will, reason, imagination, emotion, body—remains undamaged. Because every part of us is corrupt, every aspect of our culture-making suffers corruption, whether arts or sciences, economics or politics, religion or philosophy, blue-collar work or white-collar. Yet in Jesus, God has united to himself a complete human nature in order to restore every facet of it. The Church has insisted across the centuries and against all deniers that in the person of Christ undiluted deity perfectly meshes with genuinely human flesh, mind, and will. Out of his wholeness, we are made whole. In repentant faith we participate in his death and resurrection, dying to our old dysfunctional self and rising to a new mindset and lifestyle until we are sanctified entirely, in spirit, soul, and body (1 Thess. 5:23)—every part mended from sin. We carry that mending into every area of culture-making, foreshadowing at Advent and beyond the perfected world to come when One greater than Hugo or Scorsese announces, “That’s a wrap!”
- See CBS News, “Martin Scorsese on ‘Hugo’: A very personal film,” CBS News (23 April 2012); https://www.cbsnews.com/news/martin-scorsese-on-hugo-a-very-personal-film/.