In 1933, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster ushered in the age of the comic book superhero when they created the character “Superman.” Superman went on to become a cultural icon, and is often credited with the success of the superhero genre we see today. He’s faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! He’s a strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Disguised as Clark Kent, a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, he fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!
Both Siegel and Shuster were children of Jewish immigrants and you can see in Superman’s story some religious elements, particularly as they relate to the life of Moses and Jesus. For example, Moses as an infant was sent away in an ark down a river to escape the putting to death of male, Hebrew children, and he was found and adopted by Egyptian parents. Superman was sent away in a rocket ship to escape the destruction of his distant home world, Krypton, and he was found and adopted by human parents.
Superman was given some features of Jesus, too. He’s often portrayed, for example, as being destined to become the savior of humanity. And the name he was given by his “heavenly” parents of his home world is Kal-El, which in Hebrew means “vessel of God.” His earthly parents parallel Jesus’ earthly parents — Joseph and Mary being replaced with Jonathan and Martha Kent.
Superman has many exciting adventures, but one of my favorite elements in his story is the tension he sometimes feels between his otherworldly, heavenly identity as Kal-El, and his earthbound, mundane identity as Clark Kent, raised by Jonathan and Martha on a small farm in the Midwest. It seems like Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, are in a similar position, raising an adopted child who came from the heavens with remarkable abilities.
In the Superman stories it’s typically his father, Jonathan, that helps ground Clark in his human identity. When Clark starts dwelling on his superpowers or spending all his time looking up into the sky, Jonathan can be relied on to reply with a “just go milk the cows, son… oh, and, ah, don’t forget to bale the hay.”
I imagine that when the 12-year old Jesus wanders off to the temple, amazing the teachers there with his powers of knowledge and understanding, Joseph might have said something similar, like “Well, that’s great, son, and did you remember to finish off those two stools I told you about, and sharpen those axes?” So just as with Jonathan and Clark, Joseph helps to ground Jesus in earthly things, allowing him to increase in both “divine and human favor.”
In the stories, Superman learns that his “real” identity is neither the otherworldly Kal-El or the mundane Clark Kent. But rather, he needs the qualities of both to be his true self. In a similar way Jesus embodies both the human and divine, both qualities being important to his calling from his Father in heaven. So thank you, Saint Joseph, for making sure the young Jesus didn’t forget the human part.
And what’s true for Superman and Jesus is true for us, too. God loves every part of us, including the very human parts that make us uniquely who we are in the world. We have both divine qualities, from somewhere up above us, and more earthbound qualities, from somewhere down below us. And they meet somewhere in the middle, within our hearts where God can use everything in service of love — including all our talents, experiences, senses of humor, job skills, hobbies, interests, trivia, everything. Take ,for example, a certain monk who’s into monk things like praying and contemplation, etc., and also happens to be a pretty big superhero geek, and a really big fan of Superman. I mean, you never know when something like that could come in handy — serving God’s Kingdom.
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