I was cleaning out my closets and packing stuff for an upcoming move, and I was packing a fairly large model of Superman—about 3 feet tall, with movable arms and legs, and a flowing red cape, of course! I was going to deliver him to a friend in Manhattan. Until recently, he had been hanging from the ceiling of my faculty office at Fairfield University (I had installed him there some time ago), ‘flying’ over me and my students when we met to talk about their latest film project or their grades in a course.
He was there because, of all the superheroes, it wasn’t Thor or Captain America or Iron Man or Wolverine or even Batman or Green Lantern that inspired me; it was always Superman.
Superman was the purest distillation of everything I love about heroes. He had a tragic, almost Biblical origin - a baby sent hurtling from a doomed planet, adopted by a human couple who discovered that he had these incredible powers:
FASTER than a speeding bullet!
More POWERFUL than a locomotive!
Able to LEAP tall buildings in a single bound!
He could fly, he had super-strength, bullets would bounce off him, explosions would have no effect. He could hear things miles away. And he had x-ray vision: he could see through walls, or bodies, or anything-- unless it was encased in lead.
I loved the fact that, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, no one knew that he was the Superman. He would dash into a phone booth (what’s that?), and transform himself into the hero who would fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way. Come to think of it, all the phone booths I experienced had walls of glass, so I don’t know how that helped him keep the secret, much less his dignity!
It was not always easy for him to hide his real identity, and some people had suspicions when Clark Kent would disappear at exactly the same time that Superman appeared. And actually at one point or another, his secret was discovered, including by his journalist colleague and apparent love interest, Lois Lane.
The character of Superman was first created in 1933 by Jerry Siegel, a shy Jewish teenager who wasn’t very popular with his peers, or more importantly, girls. He wished that by some miracle he could be transformed from a nerd to a popular hunk of a guy, and he fantasized about it by writing a story in comic book form. He showed it to his best friend Joe Shuster, who drew comic book characters and scenes to accompany the story line, and in 1938 they succeeded in getting someone to publish the first Superman comic book.
From its origin, the story has had strong biblical, messianic and Christian overtones. The character of Superman is a combination of Samson, the strongest man on earth, and Moses, who freed God’s people from slavery, and of course Jesus, who gives his life to redeem and save the world. Superman comes to earth from another planet as a baby, is adopted by strangers and grows up to confront evil and rescue those in distress. And in the latest film version, Superman dies to save the world. Most people who see the parallels would be surprised to know that it was the inspiration of two young Jewish guys.
When I was little I used to buy Superman comics all the time, and I always wanted to be Superman for Halloween. I fantasized having his superpowers so that I could do good things for the world like him, and maybe get female admirers like Lois Lane. When I got older, his influence remained with me, even if I had long ago stopped reading the comic books and only occasionally screened the multiple Superman films. Even a few years ago, one of my students revealed a tattoo on his chest of the Superman S symbol, and I was very jealous. For a moment I toyed with the idea of getting one myself, but you know, I revealed my true colors when I chickened out.
But sometimes I wonder. When I look back at my life, I think that my enduring enthusiasm for “the Superman” influenced not just my Halloween costume selection, but actually some of the bigger choices I made regarding my life, including joining the Jesuits. I may not have had the courage to get the tattoo, but in some way I felt marked by the idealism of serving the world. Would I ever have the courage to reveal myself, to openly embrace the example of such a heroic figure?
Which brings me to the gospel story of the transfiguration of Jesus, where plain and ordinary Jesus of Nazareth is transfigured and becomes the Christ of glory at the end of time, where a plain and ordinary carpenter from Galilee is transfigured and his face begins to shine like the face of God at the very end of history. Standing up on the mountain with his closest friends and followers—Peter, James and John—he was revealed in dramatic fashion as a Superman-like figure, complete with a heavenly voice identifying him as “my son, my beloved”. Mild-mannered reporter no longer, glasses off, cape flying in the wind: it was quite a show for his friends to take in, and at first they didn’t get it.
Back in my room, I had to cease cleaning my closet--and packing Superman--because I had a lunch date reunion with a former student. It was great seeing him. He looked well, and happy. I haven’t seen him since he graduated 11 years ago, and there was something very different about him, an inside-out transformation that fascinated me. I learned that Brian had spent 5 years teaching English in Korea and Japan. And it was clear that his experiences there had given him deeper direction in his life. Brian participated in a residential program I directed at the university that encouraged students to ask three essential questions about their lives: Who am I? Whose am I? and Who am I called to be?. We wanted our students to consider these questions for the whole year, but we wanted them to know that they would be helpful to examine at every phase of their future lives, when at each turn the answer would change: when they got their first job, when they married, when they became parents, when they faced terrible losses and amazing triumphs, when they suffered illnesses and perhaps faced their own deaths. Who am I? Whose am I? and Who am I called to be?. Jesus struggled with the answers to those questions all his life as well, perhaps until he finally found the answer as he suffered unto death on the cross.
As I told my friend Brian, the Christian ‘story’–the story of Jesus, the Christ—works for me because at the most fundamental level it goes to the heart of the issue about human life. I really believe that the only way to discover your true meaning and purpose, to understand where you come from and where you go after this life on earth, the only way to find peace and fulfillment and happiness, is to let go of everything--including your very self—radically following Jesus. It’s about much more than the institution of the Church, far deeper than the wonderful rituals and prayers and pious practices that have developed over the centuries of the faith. Radically following the real Superman, light streaming forth from deep inside his soul, divine voice thundering in the air.
I think that’s what Peter, James and John got to see up on Transfiguration Mountain. I think, like Lois Lane, they had a sneak preview, a kind of momentary x-ray vision view of who Jesus really was and where he—and maybe more importantly where they were going in their lives.
The Transfiguration of Jesus was an aha moment for his closest followers, a kind of sneak preview up there on Transfiguration Mountain--Clark Kent deliberately taking off his glasses, revealing his Superman outfit underneath his clothes. But it was actually more about Peter, James and John than it was about Jesus. As they got a momentary x-ray of who Jesus really was, it was about the transfiguration and transformation of their own hearts, about where they were going in their own lives. Later, after the astonishing story of the resurrection, after they were given the blessing to share the good news about Jesus to the world, they would discover that their own transfiguration would be realized much like Jesus, triumphing in death on their own martyrs crosses.
And it was about the promise of the transfiguration of the world in which we all live. That shining vision on top of the mountain was a sneak preview and a vision for a world that could be transformed by the personal transfigurations that each one of us.
What would a transfigured world look like?
Well I have to tell you that I got a little peek at it yesterday. Like the apostles I didn’t get it right away, even as it unfolded before my own eyes on the streets of Manhattan.
I was in the act of delivering Superman, who was neatly concealed in a large box I was carrying. I came to an intersection and stopped at the curb because the light was just changing to red. Just ahead of me a homeless man ventured out onto the street where five lanes of cabs and cars and trucks and busses were ready to leap forward in a very crowded pack. He was old and very disheveled, and he was wobbling in the cross walk. It looked like he might be drunk, or sick, or something. Pedestrians on all corners were watching him. Suddenly he collapsed right in the center of the street—falling down face-forward. There were multiple cries from the spectators, who were very aware that the drivers in the cars were about to bolt. In a flash about 12-15 people ran out from all sides of the intersection to help him, some forming a kind of protective barrier around against the traffic. Several stood right in front of the cars, arms up as if they were going to physically hold them back, despite honking horns. I couldn’t see what was happening because so many had gathered around the guy, but in a few moments there was movement, and I watched in amazement as this Superman-built guy emerged from the crowd, carrying the old man in his arms as blood trickled down his face. Within seconds an ambulance and several police cars arrived, and the old man was quickly loaded into the ambulance and taken away. The strong man almost immediately disappeared into the crowd, and like in all things Manhattan, the drama was over and the participants melted into the landscape of the city.
I watched the whole thing from the sidelines, Superman boxed and in my arms. Like the apostles who witnessed the Transfiguration, I didn’t get it right away, I didn’t realize what I had seen. For a moment, a street in a sometimes dark and rough city was transformed by the shining transfiguration of its people, who otherwise assumed their plain and ordinary identities.
Imagine a transfigured world that shines its brightness everywhere and in every moment. A world where each of us shines our glory in the Lord, gives over our very self in service of one another. A world where everyone is respected and included, where truth, justice and love go hand in hand, where we bless one another with our time, our energies, our kindness and our love, giving our lives for one another, to live in the bright selflessness of our Superman the Christ.