Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster started drawing cartoon heroes in the darkest days of the Great Depression. Inspired by the legends of the Old Testament and the stories told to them by their Jewish immigrant parents, the boys were attempting to give the world some much needed hope.
They developed one super-charged luminary in particular. They named him, Kal-El, “the voice of God,” who was “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Of course, we know him as Superman.
As Superman’s story has evolved over the decades, he has become more messianic than mere crimefighter: A father from the heavens sends his only son to save the Earth, telling him, “The people of Earth can be a great people. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, I have sent them you, my only son”
When Kal-El arrives, he is raised by adoptive parents. He travels to the Arctic wilderness to commune with his father. And at age 30, the same age as Jesus, he begins his redemptive vocation. In the 1990s comics, Superman dies, only to be miraculously resurrected. And in 2006, after a long absence Superman returns, as promised, to establish his reign over Earth.
But how does Kal-El – the Superman – spend most of his life on planet Earth? He is Clark Kent, a “mild-mannered reporter” who bumbles his way around Metropolis. Clark is always practicing self-restraint; always hiding his powers; always in a sort of disguise, thin as it might be, in order to serve others.
While Superman is not the Christ-Child, and vice versa, this narrative – in a case of art imitating theology – is comparable to the Advent story. God’s son, Christians proclaim, comes to Earth from heaven with his identity, privilege, and power shielded beneath a Jewish carpenter. The major difference is that the Christ was not play-acting.
Jesus didn’t disguise himself. Faith teaches us that he really did become a human being – not a misplaced icon from Krypton. He “gave up his divine privileges,” the New Testament says, “making himself nothing.” He “emptied himself of all his rights and privileges” to love and serve humanity.
Granted, this Incarnation – divinity becoming humanity – is an unfathomable mystery, the original “Christmas miracle.” It’s worthy of our meditation and reflection, but it’s not cause for the writing of more and thicker theology books. It’s an example of how to live our lives: Live with humility, giving up rights and privilege for the sake of others.
The most pressing needs in this world do not need additional strength, muscle, or superhuman power. We need less of such things. The solution to our problems will be found in humility; the surrender of our self-centeredness; climbing down from our ruthless ambitions; and in serving others rather than serving our own interests. That’s the real power of Advent, and that’s the gift we need.