“And his name shall be call-ed Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God.” The Hebrew lurking beneath “Mighty God” is fascinating: el gibbor. The first word, el, is “God,” but might be parsed as an adjective, “divine.” The simplest rendering of gibbor isn’t the adjective “mighty,” but rather “hero.” Did Isaiah’s listeners hear “divine hero”? “God’s hero”? or even “heroic God”?
Dickens opened David Copperfield with “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” And then we have Aunt May’s great wisdom in Spiderman 2: “Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero—courageous, self-sacrificing people setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People will tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us – that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most – even our dreams.” To realize the hero within, we need heroes to admire, inspire and emulate.
I wonder if the whole notion of “hero” has suffered some terrible attrition. Who are today’s heroes? Who are yours? The drift seems to be away from traditional heroes toward – what to call them? – celebrities. A constellation of stars parade before us, Taylor Swift, Lebron James, Ronaldo, Elon Musk, Kim Kardashian, who glamorize money, muscle, physical charms. Don’t celebrities instill a hollow wishing, or even a little shaming? Don’t celebrities distract us from wisdom and goodness, and cram deluded ideals into our heads and hearts? Christopher Lasch diagnoses us, and our need for real heroes: “In a narcissistic, self-pleasing culture, we welcome celebrities because we lack imagination and courage. Heroes make demands on us.”
We might prefer the hero who bravely fixes things for us. Ahaz wished to be the big strong hero to save Israel (and his throne!); we might long for someone heroic to protect us – the way we talk about soldiers keeping America safe. All good – but who are the heroes who “make demands on us”? – and whose nobility, sacrifice and courage birth something unexpected in you so, as in Aunt May’s dream, we realize the “hero in all of us”?
In the second book I ever published, Servants, Misfits and Martyrs: Saints and their Stories, I rummaged through the hundreds of books I’ve read to lift up stories of great religious heroes who did something small or huge but always courageous and sacrificial for God – asking always what they in turn are asking of us.
Sometimes it’s simple. You pray for someone, and shoot them a note to say you are doing so. I need a hero like that. You say No when everyone else is giddy about something that simply is not of God, however societally popular or politically expedient. You show up where showing up matters. You exhibit a life that sustains those who are marginalized.
Sometimes it’s big. You make a major career change in order to contribute to the good of the world more than just to get ahead yourself. Rosa Parks simply sat on a bus. Such courage. What a hero. You ask those who are victims of race, prejudice or plain stupidity, and they ask you to stand with them – and you do so.
Mary, I think, shows us the way. She was the first Christian hero, although she’d never even heard the word “Christian,” and never thought of herself as heroic. She got quiet enough to hear what God was asking of her – namely, to let God take on reality in her, no matter the cost. She said Yes. How do we too say Yes, to become those who are also “mothers of God,” who let God take on flesh in our lives?
And Jesus, of course, shows us the way. Our great hero. Not a tough guy. No glamor. No popularity either. He ventured into forbidden zones and touched the untouchables. He told the truth, always and profoundly. He prayed, no matter how busy he was. He saw possibilities in people nobody else thought twice about. He didn’t stick with people like him, or in a comfort zone. He crossed boundaries, boldly but lovingly, with courage and compassion. As we sang last Sunday, “I’m looking for the coming of Christ, I want to be with Jesus.” If you do, if we do, then we do what he did.