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Last weekend, while at a retreat for the search and nomination process for the next Bishop, they asked us who our spiritual heroes were. I didn’t even have to think about it and you all know them by now: Archbishop Michael Ramsey, Thomas à Kempis, and St. Josemaría Escrivá. But that conversation got me to thinking about heroes.
If I had to choose a superhero – and I’m not entirely sure if he is classified as a superhero – I would go with Roland Deschain, the gunslinger in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. But when it comes right down to real people for a hero, I have to go with those who place themselves in mortal danger while protecting others. There are the firemen, police, rescue workers, but the one that came to my mind first was the soldier. And some soldiers have such a heroic heart that they inspire those around them, even when all seems lost.
There was Marine commander who was once surrounded and the chances of survival weren’t good, but he shouts to his men, “All right. They’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us … They can’t get away this time.” To which he added, “Now we can shoot at them from every direction.”
A few millennia before, King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans stood up against 150,000 Persians led by Xerxes. Before the battle commenced, Xerxes sent an envoy to Leonidas to try and convince him to surrender. The Persian envoy told Leonidas, “Our archers are so numerous, that the flight of their arrows darkens the sun.” Responding to the envoy, Leonidas said, “So much the better, for we shall fight them in the shade.” Leonidas was under no delusion as to how this battle was going to end, but he, like that Marine commander, had a hero’s heart.
So, how do we define a hero? Felix Adler, an American Jewish leader provides us with a pretty good definition: “The hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for all to see by.” That is what the Marine and Leonidas and so many others have accomplished. They provided a light, a rallying point and a direction for those around them. The same is true for our Gospel reading today. Jesus set up five blazing torches in this dark world as rallying points that give direction to all who see them.
He returned to the region of Galilee and began teaching in the synagogues and on a particular day, he retrieved the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and read from it:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Returning the scroll to its place he declared, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Those five blazing torches of his mission and ministry were set: 1) bring good news of the Gospel to the poor, 2) proclaim release to those captive to sin, 3) give sight to those who could no longer see God in the midst of a broken religious system, 4) set them free so that they might experience and share the joy and love of the Lord, and 5) proclaim to the people, “You are God’s beloved children and he desires you.” And then he said that on this day, these things have been fulfilled. Not “might be,” “could be,” “if your good little boys and girls then may be,” but have been fulfilled. Done. And like the Marine Commander and Leonidas, these torches were set by Jesus, not just as a guide for himself, they were set “in the dark streets of life for men to see by.” They were set as a guide for us, for our mission and ministry.
So often we read that passage from our Gospel and think that it is solely about Jesus, but remember his words to us, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” We now are the ones who are to bring the Good News, proclaim release from sin, give sight to the blind, show freedom in Christ, and through our words and actions let a dark world know that they are the beloved children of the Living God. We are to be the ones with the hero’s heart and continue the work of Jesus, by setting out these same blazing torches. And with one voice, we all declare, “I ain’t no hero”… but you are.
From way back in my education comes Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Iliad focuses on the Trojan War and the fall of Troy and the Odyssey covers the ten year journey home of Odysseus, also known as Ulysses, the King of Ithaca. You may recall he encountered the sirens and the cyclops and had all sorts of other grand adventures. After returning home and killing off a few enemies that have risen up in his absence, he is restored as king. It is from here that the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson decided to pick up the story in his poem, Ulysses.
Now, I would like for you all to actually believe that I sit around reading Homer and Tennyson for pleasure, but the truth is, I heard a snippet of Ulysses in an episode of Frasier and decided to read it. In the poem, Ulysses is king, but much older and unhappy. He wants to explore again as he did in his youth, so in the end of the poem he calls to his friends:
Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world…
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Perhaps we aren’t heroes and we certainly aren’t Jesus, “that which we are, we are,” but we are not relying on ourselves for our courage. That comes from God alone. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” We may not have been born heroes, but as a gift from God, we have been given this Spirit, these heroic hearts so that for the Kingdom of God, we are able to “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” As the beloved children of God, we can say with the Psalmist, “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?”
The story is told of a group of people in Kansas who after a long drought came together to pray for rain. As they met, they discovered only one young girl had brought an umbrella with her. With our heroic hearts, we are the ones that bring umbrellas when we pray for rain. With our heroic hearts, we are not afraid to stand before the nations, shining the light of Christ.
After all this talk of heroic hearts, I’m almost afraid to do this, but I want to change the vocabulary. Because you see, instead of having “heroic hearts,” we should desire “saintly hearts.” Why? Felix Adler, who gave us the definition of a hero: “The hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for all to see by.” But then he adds, “The saint is the person who walks through the dark paths of the world, themselves a light.” Therefore, you do not simply have heroic hearts, you have saintly hearts, because as Jesus says, “You are the light of the world,”
With your your saintly heart burning brightly and strong in will, strive to seek and follow the Lord, to find the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed, and do not yield to the enemies of God, even if you have to fight in the shade of their arrows, for this is the year of the Lord’s favor and in Jesus you have seen the Lord’s word fulfilled.
Let us pray: O Lord, You have mercy on all, take away from us our sins, and mercifully set us ablaze with the fire of Your Holy Spirit. Take away from us the hearts of stone, and give us a human heart, a heart to love and adore You, a heart to delight in You, to follow and enjoy You. Amen.