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Holy, Human, Hero

by Christopher M. Bellitto

One cold night last winter, I was with some friends playing a game where statements on cards got us thinking about life. One card said, —Name the person you admire most.— Everyone mentioned mothers, fathers and Mother Teresa. But Steven, a very thoughtful friend, took a long pause and then said, —Jesus.—

Of course! Why didn—t we think of that?

Steven—s response made such simple sense and pointed out a very important fact: Jesus is a person! Jesus is human! Yes, he definitely belongs on the top of the list of people we should admire as role models.

Steven reminded us that Jesus is the center of everything, yet how often we take him for granted. We forget that the world is a completely different place, a completely better place, because Jesus walked on this earth. Christians even date time from the moment of Jesus— birth. It—s 1997 A.D., or anno Domini, which means —in the year of the Lord.—

But most of the time we forget how central Jesus is. And yet, without Jesus, who are we? Who would our mothers and fathers—even Mother Teresa herself—be without Jesus?

Not Human by Half

In this Youth Update, let—s look at Jesus. This is exactly what Pope John Paul II has asked us to do this year as we prepare for the coming new millennium in the Church—s life. I—d like you especially to consider Jesus the human being.

Now, I—m not saying that Jesus wasn—t God. In a way we can—t understand with our own minds, Jesus is 100 percent human at the same time that he—s 100 percent divine. Jesus is not a 50/50 person, half human and half divine. He doesn—t have multiple personalities. He—s not Superman or just a great guy. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, and he—s God, together with his Father and the Holy Spirit.

But I—m asking you to concentrate on Jesus as a human hero. Let Jesus be a model for your own human qualities. That can be a first step in building a personal relationship with Jesus who is like you in all things except sin.

Human, Yet a Hero

Just because Jesus didn—t commit sins, however, doesn—t mean that he—s some frightening, far-away idol. In the Middle Ages, in fact, Christians often saw Jesus as a very approachable God precisely because he is so much like them—and us.

In friends, neighbors and strangers medieval Christians saw the human face of Jesus. More than just recognizing the human Jesus, however, they took the next step and tried hard to imitate Jesus by literally clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and housing the homeless.

Pope John Paul II also stresses that every single thing Jesus did was meant to teach us to be more like him when he wrote, —The whole of Christ—s life was a continual teaching: his silences, his miracles, his gestures, his prayer, his love for people, his special affection for the little and the poor....—

Because Jesus lived in our human world, he used everyday examples to teach. Asked to explain faith, for instance, he turned to his mother Mary—s kitchen: Faith is like the yeast that makes dough rise and gives life to bread.

Do you also look for God—s hand at work in your world? Ever notice how God often sends messages through the back door?

You—re sitting there thinking about how lonely you are when your dog comes up and sticks its face in your hand to be petted. A message: You are loved and you feel that in the simplest, most ordinary way. That might be a corny example, but let it challenge you.

How can you pay attention to God in your everyday life, just as Jesus saw the model of faith in his mother—s rising bread? If you open your eyes to God in the details, you—ll be acting just like Jesus.

The Roller Coaster of Everyday Life

Jesus had an everyday life with ups and downs. He ate, slept and did chores. Like most teenagers, Jesus occasionally made his parents worry. In one case, they couldn—t find him after the family visited Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-51). Mary and Joseph sound kind of panicked. This is typical of any parents, even if their particular teenager was finally found teaching in the Temple instead of coming home late or cutting class.

The Gospels don—t tell us what he did in his teens. I always wondered about that. Did he talk back to his parents? Did he have fun? Was he ever grounded? Did he have a curfew? I suspect that Jesus was well-behaved, but that might not rule out some misunderstandings or problems.

We do know that Jesus had some tough moments such as that shocking scene when he throws some shady characters out of the Temple. Instead of respecting the Temple as a holy place, many merchants and shoppers were turning it into the Palestine Mall.

What does Jesus do? He expresses his anger big-time and trashes their tables of money and products. Jesus got very angry—for a purpose, of course—to teach that the Temple should be a house of prayer.

How about your ups and downs? Have you caused your parents some worry (even without meaning to)? Do you struggle with juggling a job, school, a team or a volunteer activity? Have you snapped or lashed out at people? Well, Jesus knows just how you feel, so you can look to him for advice.

Not a Loner

Like you, Jesus had friends. He went on walks and partied with them. He cried when his friend Lazarus died. Very often we see Jesus taking the time for his friends, listening to them when they were happy, sad or confused. True, Jesus healed people and forgave sins in a way that only God can. But Jesus is still a model as a human friend.

You can act the way Jesus did just by listening to a worried or lonely friend. Or maybe you can go out and help people you don—t even know, like the medieval Christians who saw Jesus among anyone who needed a hand.

Jesus said that whenever you help another human being in need, you—re helping him. So when you give a bowl of stew to a homeless person in a shelter or listen to your sister talk about a lost boyfriend this weekend, you—ll be looking Jesus right in the eye.

But despite Jesus— great love for his friends, they turned on him by running away when he was arrested and crucified. Peter, who was always talking about how strong his faith and friendship were, even denied knowing Jesus that night. Peter worried about saving himself rather than sticking up for his friend Jesus when it really counted.

Jesus must have felt abandoned, maybe even angry with such friends, the way you do when friends don—t stand behind you if things get tight.

Picture this: Everyone in your class thinks someone—s getting picked on unfairly. They all say they—ll stand up to the bully but they elect you to speak for them. When the time comes to challenge the bully, though, none of your friends are standing behind you. It—s just you and the big guy, all alone.

In that moment, you—re right in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus on Holy Thursday. He—s stressing out about what—s going to happen to him next and his friends just fall asleep! You can tell Jesus is hurt when he says to them, —Couldn—t you even stay awake one hour with me?— (see Matthew 26:40).

We should remember, though, that Jesus forgave his friends despite the pain they caused him. Jesus looked beyond their faults to see the goodness in their hearts.

Can we say we do the same with our friends when they let us down? What would you do with those friends who backed down when the bully stood up? They did wrong by you. Would you forgive them? Could you forgive and forget?

Those are tough questions to answer. Acting like Jesus is a challenge that takes guts.

Love Your Enemies?

Jesus had a lot of enemies who tried to trick him. How did he deal with them? Jesus treated them with respect, even though they didn—t show respect to him. He prayed for them, too.

At night, at Mass, or at grace before meals, can you say that you—ve prayed for people you don—t like, for people who got in your way yesterday or have a date with someone you want to date, for people who obviously don—t like you and embarrassed you today in a school corridor full of others who laughed at you?

To those who rejected him, Jesus simply continued preaching. The Gospels don—t tell us if he was discouraged or disappointed with his enemies, but he kept spreading the message of God—s love. Most of the time, he seems to have gotten the strength to continue by praying.

If you notice, Jesus prays and then acts, not the other way around. To take just one example (Mark 1:35-38), before he went out to talk to people about God, he woke up early and prayed. Then he went on his way. Prayer is his rock, his reservoir of faith and energy. Prayer keeps Jesus going. It can refuel you as well.

Coping, Comfort

Most amazing of all, Jesus suffered and died. How did he deal with that? First of all, he didn—t want it. In the Garden of Gethsemane he flat out asked his Father to save him from pain and death. Have you ever tried to get out of something you didn—t want to do or have happen to you? If you have, you were one with Jesus because he went through the same feelings.

But then Jesus prayed, —God—s will be done.— Jesus put God the Father—s plan first, not his own, even though it meant he would have to suffer a horrible death after hours of physical punishment and public humiliation. For three hours, he hung on a cross with nails in his hands and feet. He was laughed at and ridiculed. He even cried out that his Father had abandoned him.

Though it may seem odd to say, there—s comfort in knowing that Jesus suffered as a human being. In a nursing home not too long ago, a young priest was asked why a certain elderly person had to suffer so much at the end of her life. The priest answered by taking out a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross.

—Whenever I ask that question,— he responded, —I remember that Jesus suffered, too.— Can you say that you suffer with Jesus for a greater good? Can you follow Jesus in putting up with the disappointment of a poor grade, or the emotional hurt of not being asked out to a dance, or being rejected by the —in— crowd? Maybe you have to put up with these hurts so that you can become a stronger person. As you grow to appreciate the love you have, you can learn to love people who don—t have anyone to love them.

So What If Jesus Forgave?

When I taught high school, one of my students said, —So what? Big deal! Jesus was human but he was God, too. He could put up with all that stuff.— O.K., let—s be honest. You—re not God. You—re probably not going to face crucifixion.

But Jesus said we all have our own crosses to bear, regardless of the form they take. So he is with us as a fellow human being in —all that stuff,— whatever your cross might be.

Look at the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus the human being came pretty close to losing it! He had a tough time, no doubt about it, and the next day Jesus really died—no make-believe magic, no holograms. He truly suffered and died. But like Jesus in the garden, we must put our faith and trust in God.

We have to put ourselves in God—s hands, as Jesus put his human fears in his Father—s hands. Just as God helped his Son overcome everyday and extraordinary difficulties, God helps us in the very same way.

The message is very simple. It—s reassuring to know that Jesus felt the very same emotions every human person feels. By seeing how Jesus reacted to good and bad times we can try to follow his example. That way, we can become more fully human in the best sense. We can follow Jesus, our human role model and hero.

Finally, please remember that you—re not the first young person to ask what difference Jesus makes to your own human life. Jesus asked his disciples who people said he was. When told some thought he was Elijah, a prophet, or John the Baptist, Jesus asked them a very personal question. —Who do you say that I am?—

Jesus asks us the same question. Who is Jesus to us? What must we do to follow the example of this human hero? If Jesus were a teenager today, where might he be living?

Perhaps Jesus would be living in a ghetto. Perhaps he would hang out around soup kitchens where people without other support sometimes find themselves. Maybe the media would go crazy with stories of his miracles. They—d be likely to miss the point that he came to heal our souls, not our physical bodies. After all, how would you react to a man saying he was God?

The personal challenge to the disciples is the same challenge which Jesus makes to us. Each of us has to embrace the Second Person of the Trinity by following the example of Jesus the man.

So the next time you—re living one of those very human moments of joy or sadness, happiness or disappointment, love or anger, trying to decide which way to follow, remember what my friend Steven taught me.

Jesus is the man to admire, the hero to follow. Ask yourself what Jesus would do in your situation. He—s been there.

Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Church history at St. Joseph—s Seminary, Dunwoodie, in Yonkers, New York. He writes frequently for scholarly and popular publications. This is his sixth Youth Update.


Are You Following the Human Jesus?

  • Can I see God's hand at work in the most ordinary things that happened to me today?
  • Have I acted the way Jesus would have acted today: with kindness, charity, love and respect?
  • Was I disappointed or frightened today—the way Jesus was? What did I do about it?
  • When I was hurt or angry recently, did I react like Jesus? If not, how can I use Jesus as an example next time?


Kristi Grube (15), Katie Meinerding (16), Nikki Myers (18) and Eric Vain (17), all of St. Teresa Parish in Rockford, Ohio, gathered to critique this issue of Youth Update. Nikki coordinated the meeting. At the end of the session, they felt their relationship with Jesus was more real to them.


Was Jesus an ordinary guy? Every time I see a picture of him, he looks holy in his robe and sandals.


You bet he was. I really dislike those sentimental pictures of Jesus where he always looks as if he came right out of a barber shop with his eyes raised up to heaven. He doesn't look normal. As a carpenter and then a wandering preacher, Jesus must have had callused hands, a sweaty face, dusty feet and clothes, and a pretty strong body. But this very ordinary human guy was also the Son of God. He made the ordinary very extraordinary—and invites us to do the same.


Jesus forgave his friends. Why? Why should we forgive?


When you're struggling with this, you'll have to ask Jesus in prayer to answer this for you. I think that Jesus probably forgave them because he realized they had made a mistake and needed his help and support to get back on track. Jesus offered forgiveness as an example of a holy and healthy act of faith. Forgiving our friends makes us more like Jesus, our model. We ask God in the Lord's Prayer to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." We're saying that we are setting the pace for the forgiveness we can expect for our own failures.


What makes Jesus the hero different from a television hero? What kind of healing powers did he have?


Jesus is not a Superman or Hercules. He is fully God and fully human, and he represents the best that a human being can be. Yes, he cried and got frustrated, but he also relied on God to give him strength to get through the tough times. Healing the blind or leaping tall buildings in a single bound does not make a person heroic, but forgiving sins certainly shows the power of God at work.


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