Lent: "Heroes"

The Revd Brutus Green
“Let us now praise famous men (sic), and our fathers that begat us.  The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.”

Every society chooses its heroes. Strangely in our society they have fairly peripheral roles. They are not usually the richest or the most powerful; our politicians attract at best ambivalence and it’s quite rare that leaders of commerce are household names - and even then they don’t figure so much in the role models we choose for our children. The quote I began with is biblical - from the Wisdom of Sirach - but most famously used at a runner’s funeral in the opening scene of Chariots of Fire. Our heroes it seems fall mostly in the ‘sports and leisure’ category. Somewhat oddly we valorize non-useful talents like kicking balls, drawing pictures, writing stories, singing, acting and being pretty.

We choose these heroes, then, the Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrongs and Oscar Pistoriuses; the Kurt Cobains, Amy Winehouses and Rihannas, the Marilyns, the Kate Mosses and the Lindsay Lohans. We take joy in their achievements. We gain satisfaction in their falls from grace.

It’s a sort of mythology. There is the myth of ‘super-talent’; they do not challenge us because we could never be expected to do the things that they do - in their peripheral spheres. They are better than us, in a non-challenging way. This is combined with a sort of morality story - through hard work they have overcome adversity; like the necessary X-factor stories of a single-mums, working in Asda, the death of a nan; the story we like to tell children - you can be anything you want, it just takes hard work and determination. Then there is a sort of grim schaden-freude in seeing their lives fall apart, followed by half-truths and cliches - ‘too much too young’; ‘that’s what you get when…’; ‘he’d be nothing without the drugs’; ‘he might be a good footballer but what a love-rat!’ It turns out we are better than them after all. They may never have claimed to be a role model, but there’s clearly a delight for people in thinking themselves better than a Manchester United footballer.

Something of this sort is going on in today’s Gospel. The world of Scripture tends to choose its heroes from those who can either speak the Word of God to the people or kill great multitudes. Even better when they can do both, like the prophet Elijah. At the time of Jesus though the people were looking for a hero who would bring political liberation from the Romans. Jesus, like the eponymous hero of The Life of Brian, is all too aware of the fickleness and foolishness of the crowd. Jesus knows that this is a blood-thirsty lot who like nothing better than to see their heroes put down, humiliated and brought to nothing. So he predicts that Jerusalem will give him the heroes welcome - shouting ‘Blessed is the one who come in the name of the Lord’ with their palms and praises - but this is just a precursor to ‘Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it’.

In Jesus we can see a parallel to our own treatment of heroes - initial exaltation, the story of a man coming into his vocation and rising from humble origins, before the crowd turns and enjoys its own self-righteousness in judgement of their fallen former hero. Something similar has been seen this week in Hilary Mantel’s controversial article on royalty and ‘the jointed doll’ with the ‘plastic smile’. One London paper reported that they were selling Team Kate and Team Hilary T-shirts on Oxford Street. The argument over whether the double Booker-prize winner had been horrid split the Team Kate tabloids from the Team Hilary broadsheets. Our political party leaders took the popular vote with Team Kate, but as Caitlin Moran helpfully interpreted, for a high-brow four page article this was probably a case of TLDR - too long didn’t read. In any case, it’s another example of popular veneration and vindiction as the palms are laid before Kate and Hilary is strung up by the press. It is probably only a matter of time, though, until to quote from the offending article - ‘we… rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an in-human way, making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all’.

All of this is not to say we should not have heroes. Both Jesus and St Paul suggest imitating their own behaviour. In Lent particularly we remember Christ commanding us to ‘take up our cross’; while St Paul today asks us to ‘join in imitating me and observe those who live according to the example you have in us’. In the ordination service new priests are told that they are to be a ‘godly example’. The unique pressure this puts on you as a very visible sign of godliness can make the collar feel like an anchor around your neck. And you are of course contending not merely with your own expectations and sense of God - but also those of everyone else you meet. Noticed when you refuse the beggar, the Big Issue seller, heckled when you walk through Soho, pass-remarkable when you have that third glass of wine or order ortolan; and every private shame feeling very much like public shame. ‘[His] end is destruction’, (they whisper), his ‘God is the belly and [his] glory is in [his] shame’. Fortunately, we have examples like the last bishop of Southwark who famously on being asked if he had been drinking, after getting into a stranger’s car and tossing out all the baby toys, allegedly replied ‘I am the Bishop of Southwark. It’s what I do’.

You have to learn to forgive yourself, and pray that others will also forgive you, as you forgive them.

But at least in the biblical model of heroes of faith, it is engaged and participative. Jesus and St Paul express genuine virtues in their courage, their humility, their generosity of spirit. And if the saints have their imperfections this needn’t overshadow the principles which they have largely expressed. We can forgive Martin Luther King his alleged affairs; we can perhaps forgive Churchill his brief foray into poetry. Their courage and sense of public duty is surely to be emulated. And if we are engaged in the same pursuits as the saints we will surely all the more understand their weaknesses and temptations. The danger in our society, a ‘society of the spectacle’ as it has been called, is that we are voyeurs - and watching our heroes rise and fall is equally interesting. It’s the difference between seeking heroes to be inspired by and to support, and seeking heroes just to be entertained by.

No doubt as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, with every eye on him to see the new prophet, curious about the spectacle to unfold with all the drama of the authorities and Romans who would surely see off the threat, there were many there for entertainment, to see what would happen. When Jesus tells his disciples they must imitate him and take up their cross, this is what he is warning against. Will you still back me when all others turn against me? When I am a ridiculous figure? When I am humiliated and destroyed?

And as a test for us - each week we sing those words of the crowd who welcomed Jesus so warmly into the city, when in less than a week they will demand his death. The irony of the turncoat crowd is not accidentally written into the eucharistic prayer: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord Most High. Hosanna in the Highest.”

Our heroes, the people we respect and admire, say a lot about the values we have, what it really is that we desire and think matters. It’s worth considering for a moment because whatever we think of our own life, if the people we most admire and want to be like, are simply rich and famous, or plain beautiful - that probably tells us something important about our own real values. But also we should ask ourselves whether we are content simply to watch others? Watch as people continue to fight for values such as equality, freedom and justice, the alleviation of poverty and the care of the sick and elderly; watch or participate. And as we continue towards Holy Week, we are asked whether our faith will stand the test. On Palm Sunday morning it is easy to watch Jesus enter with palms and singing in the bright daylight. But will we still be there on Thursday night during the arrest and trials? Waiting with him? In the dark hours when we are feeling tried and tested, and weeping tears of blood, will we continue to imitate him? Will we too turn from him in fear? Or will we love no matter what, and will we forgive?