This week at CWM, the text we read for "Christ the King" Sunday was an alternative lectionary suggestion (Luke 1: 76-79). On the surface, out of context, it seems like just another hymn to Christ’s kingly, sovereign power to redeem and rescue humanity in ultimate triumph.
Yet, we must not jump too quickly to this conclusion. Contrary to what we might assume, this text is not about Jesus at all. It’s about John the Baptist. So why, in the world, on Christ the King Sunday, the last day of the liturgical season, the day when we are supposed to be celebrating the Christ would we be reading about John the Baptist? After all, he is just Jesus’ sidekick, right?
Think about it. John is like Robin to Jesus’ Batman, Tonto to the Lone Ranger, Gleek to the Wonder Twins. All great epics need sidekicks after all, you know those characters who act accompany heroes on their journeys, offering them assistance and support.
Which sidekicks do you remember?
The sidekick has the literary function of playing against the hero, often contrasting in skill, asking the questions the reader would ask, performing auxiliary functions and/or preparing the way for the heroes’ own wondrous feats.
John the Baptist can be read in this same fashion, can’t he? A cousin to the Christ, John shares in some of Jesus’ supernatural mystique. He, like Jesus, was divinely conceived, a child of a woman who had long ceased menstruating. Like Jesus, he too preached an edgy message, calling people out of the comfort of their homes to the margins of society that they might seek salvation.
Yet, John’s own power and significance is both inferior to and wholly dependent on Jesus. He is often called the forerunner to the Christ, the one who points to Jesus, who prepares the way. John himself declares, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal!” His presence in the gospels is not to proclaim the message, but to announce the messenger. John functions as a sidekick playing against the hero, Jesus, in order to spotlight the true Messiah, the real Christ. Clothed in a camel hair cloak and a connoisseur of locusts, he even had his own sidekick costume and quirky characteristics. Who needs Robin’s tights when you have camel hair and a leather belt?
Yet, this identity as side kick does not seem to do justice to the prophecy we read Sunday proclaimed by John’s father, Zechariah.
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before our God to prepare the ways, to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
John is at the center of this prophecy, not Jesus. John is the one who leads to salvation through the forgiveness of sins, not Jesus. While we might be tempted to fit this prophecy into an easy interpretation of sidekick, with John playing the foil to Jesus’ Most High, it is clear that John’s role is much more significant than traditional understandings of literary sidekicks. Without John’s preparation and prophecy, would Jesus’ ministry have been at all possible?
Perhaps the problem lies in our overly simplistic understanding of sidekicks as nothing more than lesser heroes. In the 2005 film, Sky High, sidekicks take on a new role moving out from the shadow of heroes into their own light. The story follows a group of teenagers at Sky High, the first and only high school for kids with super-human powers, going through crime-fighting puberty. At Sky High, the student body throws flames with their footballs, studies Villainy with their Chemistry and is divided into "Heroes" and "Sidekicks" instead of jocks and geeks. It is this division between heroes and sidekicks that fuels the plot and provides a larger metaphor for our own human experience of being in or being out.
Each year new students to Sky High are subjected to an entrance exam administered by Coach Boomer during which they must demonstrate their super-powers. Those with cool powers such as super-strength, super-speed, or super-intelligence are made heroes, while those with lesser skills such as morphing into a guinea pig or glowing are labeled sidekicks. While the heroes go off to world-saving classes, the sidekicks are stuck in “hero support” class where they learn how to assist their heroes from All-American Boy, the one time sidekick to the famed hero, Commander. Now known simply as Mr. Boy, he teaches the art of assisting the hero. The classic rivalry between the cool kids and the nerds gets played out in the fantasy world of superheroes and sidekicks.
The movie follows Will Stronghold, son of the legendary Commander and Jetstream. Yet, upon entering Sky High, Will’s powers fail to materialize and he finds himself a “sidekick.” In a classic scene of coming out, Will has to tell his father about his abnormality…“Dad, here’s a hypothetical question, would you still love me if I were a sidekick?” A question many of us have asked our own parents, one way or another.
As the story progresses, however, it is Will and his fringe friends who end up saving the day. At the close of the film, the “Hero of the Year” award originally intended for Commander and Jetstream, is presented to the rag tag group of guinea pig morphing, liquid oozing, glowing sidekicks.
“But I'm afraid this doesn't belong to us. It belongs to them. The sidekicks. I mean, hero support.”
“Why don't we just call them what they really are? Heroes.”
And with that the final voice over fades in as the credits begin to roll. A little cheesy, a little predictable, perhaps, but a helpful re-imagining of what it means to be a hero.
You see, our easy division of superheroes and sidekicks, of who’s in and who’s out, of who matters and who doesn’t, isn’t really as neat as we would like it to be. Minor characters play major roles, both in fiction and in real life. It seems the old adage our parents taught us…don’t judge a book by its cover…is right after all. Who are we to judge the worth or value of others? We never know who is destined for greatness.
John’s role is after all essential to our Christian faith, isn’t it? Without John preparing the way, would Jesus’ ministry have been possible at all? Would we be here today proclaiming the Christ were it not for John’s role?