When I was serving at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, I decided to do an adult education series on “Christ Figures in Film,” and we did sessions on Luke from Cool Hand Luke, E.T. from E.T. the Extraterrestrial, and Andy from The Shawshank Redemption. But the session I was most excited about doing was the one on Superman; not just the comic book character, but specifically the depiction of Superman in the classic 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve.
Superman in general rather clearly hits all the necessary tropes of a Christ figure: they come from another world or reality; they are alien or strange in some obvious way; they are salvific in terms of bestowing blessings, healing, and/or justice to people or communities; they are fundamentally good in the use of their power, and specifically avoid killing or cruelty; and they generate opposition because of all those things I just mentioned. Superman, as the refugee from another world who comes to Earth as a child and discovers that he has extraordinary and unique powers which he decides to use as an agent of truth and justice in serving the needs of humanity, is a quintessential Christ-figure in many ways.
But beyond that, in the 1978 movie there are some very obvious parallels between Superman and Christ. It depicts Superman’s classic origin story: he sent to Earth by his biological father from their far-away world, but he is raised by parents named Jonathan and Martha (instead of Joseph and Mary) in the Galilee of the United States: Kansas. When he grows up, he finds himself drawn into the wilderness to discover his true identity and purpose, though he at least gets the benefit of a Fortress of Solitude that appears in the Arctic snows instead of 40 days in the open desert like Jesus.
But in the film, when he goes in the Fortress, he hears the disembodied voice of his otherworldly father address him as “my Son,” just as God does to Jesus in his baptism, which goes to tell him he has a special destiny to serve humanity, and concludes a montage of teachings over an extended period of time by saying, “they can be a great people if they wish to be; they only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all…I have sent them you: my only son.” And at that point, he comes back out of the wilderness, fully clothed in his identity at Superman for the first time, and starts helping people by doing things that can only be described as miracles from a human point of view. I mean, that’s pretty on the nose, right? It’s like someone made a superhero screenplay out of the Gospel of John!
Now what I was really excited about was not just exploring all of that, but getting the chance to do it in conversation with the actual screenwriter of the movie: Robert Benton, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director for movies like Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart, who was also an active participant in that congregation. The funny thing was, when we got into the conversation, Bob said that he thought the creators of Superman as a character would be shocked to hear the idea of him as a Christ-figure, since they were both Jewish immigrants to America and saw him through the lens of that experience!
He did agree that aspects of the screenplay of the movie tracked closely with some of Jesus’ story, though he said he did not do so consciously. But he also felt that there were significant limitations to the parallel. “They both embody a rare combination of extraordinary power and extreme goodness,” he acknowledged, “but the difference is that Superman’s greatest power is in being quite literally invulnerable, and he uses that power to save people from dangers nobody else could endure. But Jesus exercises his greatest power through vulnerability. Jesus saves us by giving himself up to death, because that’s the only path to resurrection.” I considered that for a moment, because he was right about all of it. And then he said the clincher: “I hadn’t really thought about it like this before, but I feel like Superman is Christ as we want him to be, and Jesus is Christ as God wanted him to be.”
I think that’s what the disciples were struggling with here, too, as Jesus prepares to leave them, though they don’t know it yet. It would be hard not to view Jesus as Superman, given everything that he did after returning from the wilderness and starting his ministry. Jesus may not have been able to fly or use x-ray or heat vision, but he could walk on water, heal diseases, drive demons away, multiply food from a few loaves and a couple of fish to an all-you-can-eat buffet for 5000 people and have more left over than they started with, and so on. On top of all that, Jesus was given the most shameful and painful death that the worst minds of the Roman Empire could devise for a human being, and three days later he was alive again, walking and eating and talking among the disciples for an extended period of time. I mean, that’s pretty on the nose, right?
Which is why, when they gather together one day, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” After all this time, after everything Jesus has said, that’s still the biggest endgame they can imagine for Jesus to take on as the original Jewish Superman: to restore the reign of Jewish monarchs in Israel, which requires the defeat and expulsion of the Roman Empire in the process. To that, Jesus gives both a dismissive and more comprehensive answer: “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority,” he says. He’s talking not only about the restoration of Israel here, but any of the epochs or plans that God has in mind for God’s purposes; none of them are human beings’ place to know. But then he goes on to tell them what their job and place is: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And with that, Jesus is gone, like the old Superman radio show from the 1940s where one of his catchphrases originated, “up, up, and AWAYYY!” to let the listener know that Superman was now flying. As the disciples watch in awe and wonder, he is lifted up until a cloud takes him out of their sight. And they stand there, heads tilted back, jaws agape, until they are jolted back to earth by the voice of two angels who seem to have appeared when they were distracted by Jesus. “What are you looking up there for?” they ask. “Jesus has been taken up to heaven, and he will come back the same way he left.” When that will happen, of course, is not theirs to know, as Jesus made clear just before he left. In fact, they don’t know much of anything, other than that Jesus is definitively gone for who knows how long, and they are still here, with no idea of what to do next other than wait, while the Empire continues to remain strong and hunt them.
I think we can relate to that, too. There’s a powerful song by a group called The Flaming Lips called “Waiting for Superman” that the singer wrote after his father died of cancer. It opens hauntingly: “I asked you a question / but I didn’t need you to reply / Is it getting heavy? / But then I realized / Is it getting heavy? / Well I thought it was already / heavy as can be.” He goes on to ask, “Is it overwhelming / to use a crane to crush a fly / It’s a good time for Superman / to lift the sun up into the sky / ‘cause it’s getting heavy / Hell, I thought it was already as heavy as can be.”
There have been times in my life when I have found myself singing that song, as I suspect you have too, even if you didn’t know the words or the tune; times when you think the burdens laid upon you by life are as heavy, as pressing down, as difficult to carry, as they could be, only to find more being piled on. Is it getting heavy? you ask yourself, perhaps silently in response to someone asking how you’re holding up. Hell, I thought it was already as heavy as it could be…but I was wrong. And how much longer do I have to hold it? How much longer can I hold it? I need help, someone strong enough to help take this off me, keep it from crushing me. This looks like a job for Superman; where is he when you need him?
And to that, the song has an answer. “Tell everybody waitin’ for Superman / That they should just try to / hold on as best they can / He hasn’t dropped them / forgot them / or anything / it’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.” Superman’s greatest weakness isn’t actually Kryptonite; it’s that however super he is, he’s still just a man. No matter how strong he is, the collective weight of all of humanity’s problems and needs is too heavy for him to lift; matter how fast he is, he can’t be everywhere at once.
There’s an amazing scene in the otherwise forgettable 2006 film, Superman Returns, where he flies up to the edge of outer space above the Earth, and floats in place with his eyes closed while his super-hearing takes in the cacophony of need from all over the planet: cars crashing, bullets cracking, sirens wailing, and cries for help in dozens of languages all competing with one another for his attention. Finally, his eyes snap open and he takes off like a missile, having made his choice of which emergency he will address, the ongoing cries of the others echoing in his ears as they are left to just try to hold on as best they can.
That’s the biggest problem with wanting Jesus to be Superman instead of, well, Jesus. As Jesus showed in his healing ministry, he could do lots of amazing things, but he couldn’t be everywhere at once; he couldn’t heal everyone who needed it. That’s why the point of the healings are not really about the person being helped, but using that as a sign for how the entire kingdom of God that Jesus is inaugurating will be. And this is precisely why this somewhat bizarre story of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven is actually important. John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Christian theological tradition of which Presbyterians are a part, argued in fact that it was one of the most important events in the entire gospel story.
“Christ left us in such a way that his presence might be more useful to us – a presence that had been confined in…flesh…so long as he sojourned on earth. As his body was raised up above all the heavens, so his power and energy were diffused and spread beyond all the bounds of heaven and earth.” Calvin goes on to say that because of the Ascension, Christ is “transfusing us with his power,” blessing us with the Holy Spirit as he promised so that we may truly minister not only on Christ’s behalf, but as the Body of Jesus Christ on earth, permeating every corner of the earth with our collective presence and love and activity. And in that is our hope, our calling, and our responsibility.
As Teresa of Avila famously put it:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
And so now there is no reason for anyone to be told that they should just try to hold on as best they can as they struggle under the weight of injustice or exclusion or grief that keeps getting heavier just when they thought it was as heavy as can be. In his Ascension, Jesus does not go “up, up, and away,” but “up, up, and all around,” because as the collective Body of Christ, we can be pretty everywhere at once, and there is a power in that collective unity that seems almost limitless.
Almost ten years ago, a man in Perth, Australia was boarding his morning commuter train when he slipped and his leg became trapped between the train car and the platform. Onlookers gathered around to stand with him, waiting patiently for the train officials to come free him. But as time passed and more onlookers gathered, it became clear that no matter how he tried to hold on as best he could, the train was only getting heavier. Finally, a few onlookers went over to the train itself and began to push.
It seemed ludicrous: a 43 ton train was obviously too heavy for them to lift. But then more onlookers stepped forward, and more, and even more, and soon there were a couple of hundred of people who began to push in unison: people of every gender, race, age, and physical ability. And the train began to move. Those people, working together in common spirit and common purpose, literally lifted a 43 ton train enough to extricate the man from his entrapment, and he was able to walk on his way without even any injuries.
Clearly, acting as a collective body can do extraordinary, even unimaginable things. Normal human beings with nothing in common other than a common desire to help someone in need lifted an unliftable train together. If that is the case, then for us as the Body of Christ, transfused with the resurrected and ascended Christ’s power, the question as we look out at the deep need of our community and world is not whether we have enough strength or power, but only what to do with all that we have been given; not whether the burdens we see or feel are too heavy, but only how find our grip on them.
And so, like the disciples on that mountain forty days after Easter, we need to make sure we are not simply staring up into heaven looking for Jesus, but going back into the world as the Body of Christ, trusting that, through the Holy Spirit, together we can do far more than we could have ever imagined, and that if Christ calls us to do it, nothing is too heavy for us to lift.