Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Heroes of Faith

All Saints Day (2nd Homily)

Tonight, it may seem out of place for the Catholic Church to speak about saints when the globalised world, enamoured by American culture, seems to pay greater attention to glorifying ghouls, ghosts, demons and villains. Where do we even begin if we wish to talk about saints? I guess it would be important to understand what a hero is, because saints are described as men and women who display heroic faith.

So, what is a hero? A hero, in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion. In other words, being a hero meant divine origin. They were men and women who were the stuff of gods. Later, with the demythologizing of the concept, hero (male) and heroine (female) came to refer to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good of all humanity. The separation of humanity from the divine had begun. In an ironic sense, heroes came to replace the vacuum that was left by the dearth of gods. The idea of human heroes became a defiance of divine providence and intervention.

But the traditional concept of a hero has suffered a greater blow in recent times due to popular culture. It is no longer novel to be just a hero – the story of gallant and noble hero who rescue the helpless maiden in distress has been told countless times. This is just too boring for a world that craves for innovation and the unfamiliar. Therefore, we are beginning to see emerging in cinematography, literature and music, a glorification of the bad, the demonic and the villainous, which were originally seen as the antithesis of heroism. Thus the anti-hero has been canonized in songs like, “I’m Bad, I’m Bad” by Michael Jackson, Vampires in the TV series, True Blood, Casper in the cartoons, the demon Hell Boy in comic books and witches and wizards in the Harry Porter stories.

The Catholic Church’s celebration of the feast day of saints, its continued practice and tradition of canonizing ordinary men and women as saints, certainly goes against the tide of this prevalent trend. Almost everyday of the liturgical year is dedicated to a saint. In other words, during an entire liturgical year, the Church provides us with so many heroic examples of faith and holiness. Pope John Paul II, during his tenure as pope, had canonized more saints than all his predecessors. When asked why he did so, his reply was this: “In a world that is faithless, we need more models of faith. In a world that is hopeless, we need examples of hope. In a world that is so full of violence and death, we need shining beacons of peace.” In other words, by venerating and honouring the saints, the Catholic Church restores to the concept of heroism, its original characteristic of being linked with the divine.

The statement “The glory of God is man fully alive,” which is attributed to St Ireaneus, taken out of context can be deceiving. It seems to imply that the way to glorify God is to just be yourself and follow your heart. Now, being yourself is very important — just look at what happens when you try to be someone else — but it’s important to remember that the only way to truly be yourself, a created being, is through and for the One who created you. The glory of God is man fully alive, but man fully alive is man glorifying God.

That’s who saints really are – they show all of us, not only Christians, what it means to be fully human, to be heroes and heroines. But unlike the humanized version of a hero or the recent aberration of the anti-hero, these Christian heroes are mirrors which allow us to see the goodness, the greatness and the love of God. They are like windows which allow the light of Christ to pass through them and shine through them. It isn’t their own light. They have no light of their own. Saints don’t have any ambitions to draw people to themselves. They are not saviours nor the source of light. The light which shines through them is that of Christ. And it is to Christ, that saints draw others.

Saints are not superhuman beings. They are not great spiritual experts or angelic beings who have gotten rid of their humanity. No. The saints are fully human just like you and me. The saints are heroic because their lives demonstrate that they are fully grounded in their own humanness. They are fully human because they are in touch with human pain and suffering. They undergo pain and suffering and yet emerge victorious because they have not allowed despair to overtake them. They truly understand the meaning of the beatitudes in today’s gospel: “How happy are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven … Happy those who mourn: they shall be comforted …Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They are fully human, because they have learnt the purpose of our earthly existence is to glorify God whatever may be the circumstances they find themselves in.

They have undergone trials, difficulties, loneliness, failure, pain, suffering, tears of frustration, and even death but they have not allowed these to make them hard and resentful. They have not allowed these experiences to define them. Ultimately, they have discovered that it is the love of God which surpasses all these things which defines them. These experiences have allowed them to learn how to be more patient and gentle. Because they have experienced pain and grief, they have know how to bring peace and comfort to others. They have also learned how to be satisfied with what they have and depend entirely on the providence of God.

These are the saints whose feast we celebrate today. They are ordinary persons who have learned how to be loved by God and to love others extraordinarily. At our baptism, we too were given the names of these saints so that we too may become like them one day. All this will not take place in a single day. Neither does it require us to have superhuman strength or powers. And yet, the lives of the saints remind us that sanctification and holiness is open to all of us. There is no need for great or even momentous display of miracles. The miracle can be seen every day of our lives, throughout our whole lives, where we will be reminded by the saints to die a little to our own selfishness, our pride, our self-absorption so that we can gradually allow the light of Christ to shine through us.

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