David Bowie and Our Time in the Desert

When we think of Lent, David Bowie is probably not the first person that comes to mind. But in 1977 he released a song called “Heroes.” Granted there was no duet with Bing Crosby involved, but there was a bold proclamation: “We could be heroes! Just for one day!” At first glance, this sentiment may not seem to have a lot to do with Jesus. After all, we think of Jesus as all of these different things: Messiah, Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity … but we often don’t take the time to consider him to be a hero.

Why not? After all, a hero is defined (according to Wikipedia) as “someone who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, displays courage and the will for self sacrifice for some greater good of all humanity.” That sounds like Jesus to me. But maybe we don’t think of Jesus as a hero because no one is simply born a hero … you become a hero by making some grand gesture at expense to oneself for the betterment of the whole. Jesus may have been born the Son of God, he still had to become a hero.

Heroes don’t usually just appear on the scene knowing exactly what to do. They need to be shaped.  They need to be formed. They need to be prepared so that they are not only capable of performing these self-sacrificial tasks for others, but so that their motivations are the right ones. In 1949, mythologist Joseph Campbell looked at the processes that have shaped heroes by looking at the stories and myths of heroic figures across the centuries. When Campbell looked at those processes, he began to notice particular STAGES that almost all heroes have had to go through, regardless of religion or culture. One of the first stages of the Hero’s Journey — there is usually this “Time in the Wilderness” right before the hero’s work begins.

Many Native American tribes will send their young on vision quests when they become of age so that they can go into the wilderness, become more exposed to the elements, and in the experience of vulnerability receive some sort of spiritual insight or communication. Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert before he received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. And Saint Ignatius Loyola spent an extended period of time in Manressa, Spain, in prayer and in reflection on his own sense of sin before beginning his ministry.

And in the very first chapter of Mark, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the desert. And it was during that process of temptation — it was during that experience of vulnerability — that Jesus became even more prepared to become the hero God called him to be. After his time in the desert, after he was supported by the angels, Jesus went on to perform the heroic tasks of healing the sick, of providing good news to the poor, and then performing the most heroic task of all, dying on the cross and resurrecting from the dead.

And it is the same for us. As baptized Christians we are called to be Christ-like, which means, we are called to be heroes. We are called to be heroes like Christ. We are called to heal the sick with our words and actions. We are called to proclaim good news with our words and our actions to the poor and to those in need. And to help shape us to become the heroes we are called to be, we have been given our own time in the desert — we have been given Lent.

If you listen to the lyrics of Bowie’s song, the two protagonists are not the kind of heroes who wear Superman capes. They are not the kinds of heroes who carry light sabers. They are not the kinds of heroes who have Nimbus 2000 broomsticks.They are simply two lovers sharing a kiss in the dark shadow of the Berlin Wall during the height of the Cold War. The kind of heroes Bowie is talking about in the song — and the kinds of heroes Jesus talks about — devote themselves to love. And as most of us know, real love can be hard.

As a student, I tend to stay up very late, yet no matter how late I stay up I can usually find my sister on Facebook, up in the wee hours of the morning feeding her new baby despite having work the next morning. Real love can be hard. Sometimes people we care about have horribly wronged us and we have to find it in ourselves to forgive those people … and the words of absolution do not find their way so easily to our lips. Real love can be hard. And often we are confronted by people we may not want to think of as our brothers and sisters, people like the poor and the undocumented immigrant, but need our help nonetheless. Real love can be hard. I can think of 100 of more examples and I am sure that everyone here can too. So it’s no wonder why we associate heroism with love. There is more than a casual tie there.

But the truth is, we all have Berlin Walls in our hearts. We all have parts of ourselves that block out the love of God, that cast a shadow over some of our neighbors. So to bring down those inner Berlin Walls, we need to be shaped.  We need to be formed. We need to be prepared in order to be the heroes that Christ calls us to be. We have been given this time in the desert so that we can continue to become the heroes that God calls us to be and helps us to be.

Because when we enter our time in the desert, when we enter this time of Lent, when we try to make room in our lives to truly walk with Christ, we can be heroes for more than one day. We can be heroes forever and ever. We can be heroes and the angels will be there to minister to us along the way.

If the above sounded a lot like a homily, well … there’s a reason for that. This was given Sunday, February 26, 2012, at Holy Trinity Church in Washington, DC. It is based on the gospel text for that day: Mark 1:12-15.

To Listen to the Live Aid performance of the song, click on here.

Father Tom Gibbons was ordained a Paulist priest in 2012. Prior to becoming a priest, he spent time as a Jesuit Volunteer in Phoenix, AZ, working with immigrants in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. He's also worked as a graphic designer and web developer, serving nonprofits like Success For All Foundation, Baltimore City Head Start, and Catholic Relief Services. He previously wrote a blog entitled “Kicking and Screaming” for Busted Halo. After serving as a deacon at Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Father Tom was sent to St. Peter’s Church in Toronto, where he first served as Associate Pastor and then as the Parish Administrator. In 2016, he produced a documentary on the founder of the Paulist Fathers, entitled “Isaac Hecker and the Journey of Catholic America” – featuring celebrity voices of Martin Sheen, Matt McCoy, and Bob Gunton. Father Tom is currently at work on a new documentary investigating the complicated legacy of the Catholic Church in California with the film “Junipero Serra: Statue of Limitations,” scheduled for release in 2022. In addition to his work as Vice President of Paulist Productions, Father Tom also performs pastoral work at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church and Transfiguration Catholic Church in Los Angeles, CA.