Hollywood loves a hero. Whether the inspiration comes from a true-life story or straight from the imagination of an author, the big-screen treatment paints large the trials which the hero, or heroine, must face in order to achieve their calling – whether that be to save the planet Earth, rescue their family, or obtain justice for a righteous cause.
Sometimes the epic story is a tragedy – think of Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, or Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, or Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic. In these stories, we are invited to weep as the hero pays the ultimate price for staying true to their cause, or saving their loved one.
More often the hero puts their life on the line, but at the very last minute rescue arrives courtesy of an unexpected twist in the plot. Thanks to a gifted scriptwriter, everyone is happy: the hero lives to enjoy his triumph, the audience breathes a sigh of relief, and the studio gets to cash in on a lucrative sequel. Captain America lands an enemy World War II plane in icy waters, so he can be thawed out for a 2012 blockbuster. Frodo Baggins’ final struggle to cast off the One Ring is resolved when Gollum snatches the ring and falls to his doom. Harry Potter risks death but triumphs in his final battle with Voldemort. Or in Zulu, valiant Welsh soldiers realise their enemies have stopped fighting and are singing not to frighten them, but to do them honour.
The Good Shepherd is an altogether different kind of hero. Jesus Christ is neither the tragic hero whose life ends with a noble sacrifice, nor a champion rescued by forces beyond his control. Listen to what he says: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” It is precisely because Our Lord keeps nothing back but yields his whole life on the Cross, that he fulfils the mission assigned to him by his Father. And this teaches us a profound lesson: if we are to become the saints which God is calling us to be, we also must lay down our lives in order to pass through the trials and sacrifices which will make us perfect.
The Gospel teaches us this lesson again and again in different images: the grain of wheat which dies to bear fruit in abundance; the talent which must be invested in a risky venture to please the master; or the plain teaching that only the one who loses his life for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, can save it. This is true of the epic saints, but it is also played out in smaller dramas of our daily Christian life. The little sacrifices are the keys which unlock our deepest potential, and prepare us for the greater challenges which test our willingness to pursue God’s will.
You might fall in love, but realise the one you have fallen for is not the one you can marry. Perhaps, in God’s plan, you are called to enjoy a life-long friendship with that person; but first, you must walk the painful path of sacrificing all possibility of this relationship being more than that. Then, and only then, can the relationship flourish as the life-giving friendship it is meant to be.
Or perhaps a member of your family has expressed the thought that they might be considering the priesthood or the convent life. Your natural reaction might be a desire to shield them from the hardship involved in embracing a life of total dedication, service to others, and renunciation of the material goods which our society uses to value people. This fear is natural – but listen again to the words of the Lord! “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” Perhaps your loved one can only become fulfilled in life because they lay aside these things.
To choose to marry – to choose to have children – to volunteer for a good cause – to enter a seminary or a religious order: all of these are choices which require you to lay down your life for others. I was helped to make the final decision to enter seminary by a Franciscan priest, who said something like this:
Don’t be afraid that God is going to ask you to make a choice which will break you. If this is your vocation, then doing what you are called to do is the one thing that will eventually make you happy. Faithfulness to God does require sacrifices, but God isn’t going to ask you to spend a lifetime of misery serving him, wishing you were something else. You know that something is your vocation because the final ‘you’ will not be an alien being, but the perfection of who you are, even if it’s a struggle to get there.
Without the Cross, Jesus would not have become the pierced Messiah who could show his glorious wounds to doubting Thomas. By passing to life through death, Jesus teaches us the only way to Christian fulfillment. To take hold of the full life God has in store for us, we must make sacrifices. On this special Sunday we are called to pray that many more people will find the courage to say yes to the particular sacrifice which is embracing priesthood or religious life; and with our prayers, we may need to also seek the courage to allow our loved ones to make that journey, even though we see the hardships which lie ahead.
Yes, if you are to become the saints which God is calling you to be, you will be asked to lay down your lives. In family life or in religious life, to some degree you must lay down your comforts and your worldly ambitions. This is heroism which Hollywood cannot match. The journey will not be easy, but the ending will be amazing – because in God, we have the greatest director of all!
Acknowledgement: the choice of iconic heroes was guided by conversations with the Chaplaincy team at the University of Glamorgan, the weekday congregation of St Dyfrig’s, and contributors to the Society of St Gregory webforum.