In 1933, when the United States and much of the world was gripped by what historians now call the Great Depression, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster issued the first Superman comic book. This character gave birth to a host of superheroes and heroines which have populated our American culture ever since.
The early adventures of superman depict him as a social activist taking on the corruption of the business and political world. Some cultural historians see him as a “liberal ideal” of the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Once the United States and the rest of the world climbed out of the economic depression of the 1930’s, Superman began to take on other enemies including the Ku Klux Klan and agents of anti-semitism. As a being who came to earth from another planet, Superman also embodies the plight of the immigrant. As the foe of evil, Superman continues to capture the imagination of the public and has become an American cultural icon of “truth, justice, and the American way.”
Today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah speaks of the birth of a Messiah, an anointed one, who is very much the same kind of figure: But he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips (Isaiah 11:4-5). Invested with wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge and fear of the Lord, this promised Messiah is, like Superman, an “ideal.” Beset by a long history of kings who have strayed from the Sinai Covenant, the prophets of Israel begin to deliver oracles through which they deliver God’s promise of fidelity to those who cling to the covenant. Just as the American people needed Superman at the depths of the Great Depression, Israel need a superman to deliver them from the grip of failed monarchs.
Some commentators tell us that the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is a long meditation on the promise that God made to David; namely, that a king of his lineage would always sit on the throne of Israel. The image of the Messiah is the fulfillment of that promise. However, just a few years after Isaiah delivered this oracle, Israel became the subject of Assyria and her people were led back into slavery during a period which has become known as the Babylonian captivity. Obviously, the oracle was not fulfilled as Isaiah or any of the other prophets envisioned.
The evangelists take great pains to demonstrate that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Messianic promise. Both Luke and Matthew include details in their infancy narratives which identify Jesus as a man of the House of David. John and Mark include details in the ministry and in the passion, suffering and death of Jesus which definitively tie him to the oracles of Isaiah. Jesus is our super hero who comes to deliver us from the corruption of sin and death just as Superman came to deliver the American people from the corruption of the business and political world.
No one believes that Superman is real. Even though the comic books and the movies continue to develop the story, we all know that it is fantasy. Jesus is the real deliverer who has fulfilled the promise. Because of Jesus, we have been set free from the grips of sin and death. His followers continue to struggle with the evils of this world; however, the outcome of this struggle has already been determined. God will prevail.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator