By Emily Hylden
On the way to school this past month, my four-year-old told me, sadly and gravely, that there were no real superheroes. His friend at school had told him so, and as a tender-hearted boy who spends at least half his waking hours in masks, capes, and armbands, he was pretty broken up about this news.
I asked him if he thought this friend was telling the truth, and what made a superhero “real,” and why he thought the world needed superheroes (I was thinking overtime about how to narrate saints as superheroes, of course!).
My preschool theologian told me that superheroes were strong and could fly, and we needed them because while the police can catch bad guys, superheroes help them catch the bad guys much more easily, and we want all the bad guys to be put away so that everyone in the world will be safe and happy, with no crying.
He asked if I knew that God cries with us when we are sad, and he asked why God did that. We talked about how God loves us, and that what makes us sad makes him sad too. He wondered what God did with those sad feelings, and whether God might do powerful things, too, like pull up a tree or topple a building.
I reminded him about the story of Samson, how he asked God for superhero strength, and about the story of David and Goliath, how David knew that God would help him defeat the giant. He kept telling me that they weren’t “in our world,” and I admitted that they had died long before either of us were born. He was very clear that we need a superhero here, today (Amen, Kid).
The whole world groans with big feelings as we yearn for a superhero to make the world safe and happy. Even as young as four years old, we can tell that there’s something wrong with the world and that it’s beyond the scope and ability of normal everyday humans to put it right.
Though we are in the season of Christmas, we live this year in the already-and-not-yet in so many ways. It is obvious to children that the place where we dwell is broken and dark, in need of a superhero, and yet, just as for us grownups, it’s not totally clear how the power and imminence of God’s deliverance may be present.
It’s Christmas, but just like Lent and Easter in 2020, it still feels sort of like Advent. We’re waiting. We’re watching. We’ve been holding our breath just about all year long. And of course, as Fleming Rutledge tells us, as Christians all our lives are Advent. All our lives are about longing for our Superhero, our Savior.
I think my son knows that he’s pretending when he puts on the mask and red leggings of Mr. Incredible or Spiderman, but I wonder if I have something to learn from his play: he longs so fervently to seek the good and to embody the righteousness and justice of setting the world to rights that he daily puts on the clothes of such “saints,” he acts out the stories of their heroism as a habit, he even asks if a superhero might eat this or that food (more veggies, less mac and cheese). I see in my son a flicker of the holy fire, acting and pretending his way into holy habits, clothing himself with the fabrics of heroism, that even when he’s “undercover” in “normal” clothes, he carries within him the superpower of God’s presence.
The Rev. Emily Hylden serves as vicar of St. Augustines’s Oak Cliff in Dallas.