Fr. Eric Mah is a priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto. Here is his thought-provoking extended homily that uses the Disney movie, Frozen, as an analogy for Original Sin and the Mystery of the Incarnation. (warning: spoiler alert)
Today, I’d like to do something a little bit different. What I’d like to do is explain this great Mystery of the Incarnation – this great mystery of the Word of God becoming flesh (cf. Jn 1:14; CCC 461) – by using an extended movie analogy. The movie I have in mind came out about a year ago. It’s made by Disney and it’s made about $1.2 billion worldwide. The movie I’m talking about is called Frozen.
The movie is very loosely based on that really famous fairytale called “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen, which is to say that, technically speaking, there’s a character in the movie named Elsa, who will eventually become queen of this little place called Arendelle, and who just happens to have a very unique ability to manipulate snow and ice in a very magical sort of way. But apart from these little details, the movie actually has very little to do with the original story. What we find instead is that the movie tends to focus very much on the particular relationship between Elsa and her younger sister, Anna, who will eventually prove herself to be a sort of “Christ-figure”, if you will, in the greater context of the movie.
If we’re really going to understand and appreciate how the movie actually fits in with the great Mystery of the Incarnation, it’s actually quite helpful for us to have at least a basic understanding of salvation history. As you might recall, at the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, we hear that our first parents, Adam and Eve, walked in easy friendship with the Lord in the Garden of Eden (cf. CCC 374); which is to say that there was no suffering, no death, no pain and no fear (cf. CCC 375-377). It’s no coincidence that the Bible basically says that Adam and Eve were both naked before the Lord and each other (cf. Gen. 2:25). You’ll notice that it’s all very symbolic.
All of this is suddenly interrupted (very dramatically) by the entry of Original Sin into this world. As a result of this great act of disobedience and distrust on the part of our first parents, all sorts of disorder and chaos are suddenly introduced into the visible world. For instance, we hear that Adam and Eve start to bicker among themselves (cf. Gen. 3:12), which represents a certain disorder into our dealings with others. Furthermore, we see the great onset of suffering, misery, death, and even this new inclination towards evil and sin (cf. CCC 405; Gen. 3:19), which represents a certain disorder in our very selves. Finally, we hear that Adam and Eve suddenly become very afraid of God (cf. Gen. 3:8, 10). They try to hide from Him (cf. Gen. 3:8) and they try to cover up their nakedness before Him (cf. Gen 3:7). What does this represent but the introduction of a certain disorder even in our very relationship with God Himself?
But God does not abandon Adam and Eve. No, instead He clothes them (cf. Gen. 3:21); and more importantly, He promises them that in the fullness of time He will send onto them a Saviour: One who will finally liberate them from the great tyranny of sin and death, and restore them to a true and lasting friendship with the Lord their God (cf. Gen. 3:15; cf. CCC 410-411).
A scene from the 1911 silent film ‘Hell’, an Italian cinematic version of Dante’s Inferno.
Now, what does this all have to do with the movie Frozen? Well, quite a lot, actually! Because the great spiritual masters in the Church’s tradition have often described this notion of being “in sin”(or rather, being “sinful”) as a state of “separation” or “alienation.” For example, St. Augustine says that sin is like being “caved in” on oneself. And perhaps more significantly, the poet Dante describes hell not as a fiery pit as we might typically expect, but rather, as this sort of icy wasteland. He says that sin is basically like being “stuck in ice”; or rather, being “frozen”! This whole image of being “frozen” as we see time and time again throughout the course of the movie, is basically a sort of metaphor for the reality of sin in our lives; or perhaps, we might even say Original Sin, in particular.
So how does all of this actually play out in the context of the movie? Well, at first, we notice that Elsa and Anna, in their childhood, are both portrayed as being very carefree, and very much relaxed in each other’s presence. All of this hearkens back to that original state of affairs in the Garden of Eden where, again, as we hear in the Book of Genesis, both Adam and Eve walked in easy friendship with the Lord.
This is suddenly interrupted very dramatically when an “accident” takes place while Elsa and Anna are at play, which of course represents this great onset of Original Sin into the visible world. In turn, this introduces a sort of rupture in the relationship between these two sisters. For instance, you’ll notice that Elsa starts to become very fearful and very self-conscious in the presence of her own sister. In fact, she even goes so far as to actually shut Anna out from her life, not just for a day, but actually for a period of several years, by locking herself up in her own room!
Anna is completely dissatisfied by this new state of affairs and so she takes it upon herself to knock continuously on Elsa’s door; and again, not just once, but for a period of several years, constantly inviting her to come out, and to enter back into right relationship with her (cf. Rev. 3:20-21). It’s actually kind of reminiscent of that very famous passage from the Book of Revelation, where the Lord says to us: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if you hear My voice and open the door, I will come to you and eat with you, and you with Me… Let anyone with ears listen” (Rev 3:20-21) [emphasis added].
If you think about it, that’s actually the whole point of that song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” In other words, the song isn’t really about this invitation to “build a snowman” per se; but rather, it is very much about this very deep and profound invitation on the part of our Lord for us to enter back into right relationship with Him through this great appeal to the deepest desires of the human heart, whether we’re talking about the desire for peace, joy, friendship, happiness, relationship or whatever the case might be.
Nevertheless, Elsa still refuses to open the door to her sister (again, for a period of several years) until she is finally forced to do so on the very special occasion of her coronation: this very special day on which she is finally to be crowned queen of the entire kingdom. You’ll notice that this moment basically coincides with this very catchy song called “For the First Time in Forever”, which interestingly is sung as a sort of duet between Elsa and Anna. Because what really stands out when you listen to this song is the great contrast in attitude between these two sisters with regards to the impending coronation. On the one hand, you’ll notice that Anna is completely thrilled and excited by the possibility that the castle doors are finally being opened, such that she finally has the opportunity to enter into real relationship with so many different people. But, on the other hand, you’ll notice that her sister, Elsa, is completely terrified, even though this is actually meant to be (quite ironically) a moment of great joy and tremendous celebration.
But all of this alludes very strongly to the fact that truly one of the great tragedies when it comes to the reality of Original Sin in our lives, as noted very beautifully by Fr. Robert Barron in one of his sermons, is that we typically come to adopt a sort of defensive posture and mindset vis-à-vis our neighbour, such that we come to look at other people not as persons to be loved; but rather, as persons to be feared. As Fr. Barron points out, and as we all know from personal experience, what this typically does is give rise to a whole variety of sins in our dealings with others, whether we’re talking about the sins of hatred, violence, cruelty, malicious gossip, slander or whatever the case might be.
All of this eventually proves to be far too much for Elsa to finally handle. She decides to essentially banish herself to a far away mountain where she can finally be all alone. This gives rise to that very iconic moment in the movie when we hear that really famous power ballad called “Let It Go”, which won the Academy Award this past year for “Best Original Song”. This song is completely fascinating for a variety of reasons; but what stands out in particular is that, if you look it up on YouTube, for instance, and you read several of the comments posted below, you’ll notice that a lot of people are of the opinion that this song is actually a great theme of self-liberation and self-emancipation; whereas actually, it’s really not.
Because even though this song is extremely catchy and very upbeat, if we pay very close attention to what’s really going on in Elsa’s life when she’s singing this song, you’ll notice that the song is actually very sad and quite tragic! Even though Elsa is changing her clothes, changing her hairstyle, and building herself a new castle, at the end of the day, she is still very much all alone in a castle made of ice! And if that isn’t a metaphor for how Original Sin really screws up our lives, and really separates us from God and from each other – well, then I don’t know what is!
But this speaks to the fact that whenever we try to deal with the effects of Original Sin on our own and through our own effort, we simply can’t do it. In other words, at the very most, we can only deal with the problem on a very superficial and cosmetic level whether we’re talking about changing the way we look – plunging ourselves into all sorts of activity – or simply acting out in a very dramatic and perhaps even self-destructive kind of way as, for instance, we often do in the case of sex, drugs or alcohol. Because the reality is that what we really need to do whenever we find ourselves in this state of real separation or alienation from God, is simply turn our lives back onto God with a great spirit of humility and trust; and simply allow Him to save us in the very particular way that only He can.
All this eventually comes to the surface when Anna finally catches up to Elsa at the ice castle, and they finally have a chance to talk about all these things which have recently come to pass. At first, you’ll notice that Elsa is still very much in self-denial. She insists very passionately that even though she is, in fact, living all by herself in a castle made of ice, she is still very much “alone and free”. But then as Anna clearly points out, the “effects of Original Sin”, if we can put it that way, are simply far more serious and far more reaching than Elsa could have ever imagined or anticipated. This comes out most strongly in the fact that the entire kingdom of Arendelle is now completely encased in ice, even though it is still (technically speaking) the middle of the summer.
When Elsa finally realizes how bad things have actually become, and that her life has spiralled completely beyond her control, she starts to panic. She starts saying things to herself like: “I’m such a fool! I can’t be free!” “[There’s] no escape from the storm inside of me!” But then, you’ll notice that she very abruptly ends by saying: “I can’t!” At this point, a very powerful blast of ice suddenly shoots forth from her own body and enters into the heart of her sister, Anna.
It’s a very dramatic and almost scary moment, for sure! But perhaps we might even say that this scene actually represents the real “turning point” in the entire movie. Because what this moment basically represents is that very important move in the spiritual life whereby we basically come to acknowledge our complete and total insufficiency before the reality of evil and sin in our lives, such that we basically choose to turn our lives completely over to Christ; believing again that He will save us in the very particular way that only He can. But perhaps we can even take it one step further: because what this scene also represents is that very important moment in salvation history when Christ effectively “takes [upon Himself] the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29) [emphasis added]!
It’s no coincidence that when Elsa basically comes to admit her great powerlessness in the face of evil and sin in this world, and at least very implicitly chooses to turn her life over to Christ, the grace of salvation starts to work very quickly. You’ll notice that Anna starts to change very dramatically; she starts to transform. Her body temperature not only begins to plummet at an extraordinary rate, but her hair also becomes very white, not unlike Elsa’s hair. Her face becomes very pale, not unlike Elsa’s face. And then, finally, to sort of drive the point home, there’s a really dramatic scene near the end of the movie where Anna is effectively trapped behind locked doors, not unlike how Elsa was herself trapped at the very beginning of the movie! In other words, Anna effectively becomes Elsa! And, of course, what is this but a great symbol for the Incarnation: this great Mystery by which Christ Himself takes on our human flesh (cf. Jn. 1:14) and truly becomes like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 4:15), so as to truly position Himself to become the “New Adam”, if you will: the one who will truly counteract this great act of disobedience and distrust on the part of the “First Adam” through a life of perfect obedience. A life of perfect, sacrificial love in accordance with the will of the Father, again, so as to bring about this very definitive and lasting reconciliation with the Lord our God (cf. 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45; Phil 2:8; Rom 5:19-20; CCC 411).
At the end of the movie, what basically happens? Well, Elsa eventually faces this sort of “life-or-death” situation where she’s almost killed, but then she’s ultimately saved through the intervention of her sister: when Anna basically chooses to sacrifice herself such that her sister might live, but not before becoming herself completely frozen as a solid block of ice. And, of course, what is this but a great symbol for the Crucifixion (cf. Mt 27:32-56)? But then, of course, because it’s a Disney movie, Anna very quickly comes back to life! And what is this but a great symbol for the Resurrection (cf. Mt 28:1-10)?
But you’ll notice the very particular way in which Anna comes back to life, which is actually very important! You’ll notice that at first there is a very small emanation of heat which begins from Anna’s heart which then extends to the rest of her body until she is finally restored to her former self. If you think back to the Gospel of John, what does this actually remind us of but the pierced heart of Christ on the Cross from which flows blood and water (cf. Jn. 19:34)? This in turn, represents the Most Holy Eucharist and the sacrament of Baptism; or perhaps, we might even say (generally speaking) the sacraments of the holy Catholic Church which are the very privileged means by which we are actually freed from original sin and restored to true and lasting friendship with the Lord our God. For example, the sacrament of Baptism truly frees us from the grips of original sin, and restores us to divine life. The sacrament of Penance restores us to real friendship with God whenever we happen to fall into sin after the day of our Baptism. And by means of the great sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist, Christ Himself truly gives us “food for the journey” (cf. CCC 1524-1525), if you will, through the very precious gift of His own Body and Blood.
I realize that there’s a lot going on here but perhaps I might end with this: a very good and holy priest once told me that the reality of sin is such that it basically amounts to a failure to love, whether we’re talking about the failure to love God, or the failure to love other people; and that always has definite consequences. In other words, whenever we commit a particular sin, whether we’re talking about something we’ve done, or something we’ve failed to do, what basically happens is that a sort of poison enters into our veins, in a spiritual sense, which very much compromises our ability to love, again, whether we’re talking about loving God or loving other people.
But the whole point is that this poison is not something we can simply remove on our own, through our own personal effort. No, it is actually something which can only be removed (or taken away if you will) through the grace of God, particularly as it is given to us through the sacraments of the Church; again, whether we’re talking about the sacrament of Baptism, the sacrament of Penance, the sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist, or whatever the case might be.
All of this comes across very beautifully and quite dramatically at the very end of the movie, when Elsa effectively receives the great sacraments of the Church, through the death and resurrection of Christ, and through the pierced heart of Christ on the Cross, such that her ability to love God and to love others is suddenly restored; hence, her newfound ability to really appropriate that great line which effectively becomes the great motto and touchstone for the entire movie: “An act of true love will thaw a frozen heart.”
The movie basically ends with a really beautiful scene where the kingdom of Arendelle is finally restored to its former glory. It is finally freed from its eternal winter which, of course, is very symbolic of the fact that, again, through the intervention of Christ – through His Incarnation – through His death – through His Resurrection – and through the sacraments of the holy Catholic Church – the world is finally freed from the great tyranny of sin and death – as the Lord had always promised – from the very beginnings of salvation history (cf. Gen. 3:15; cf. CCC 410-411).