Big Damn Heroes

Fans of the TV series “Firefly” will recognize the title as a quote from a line in one of that series’ episodes. Two of the protagonists were about to be killed by a howling mob when their friends suddenly showed up to rescue them. “Looks like we arrived just in the nick of time”, says one of them. “What does that make us?” The reply: “Big damn heroes, sir.” “Ain’t we just.”

Orthodox have always delighted in big damn heroes (or if you prefer, in “big d*** heroes”). That is, the Orthodox have always delighted in their fellow servants who defy damnation and death and the world, blazing the path of salvation home in such a way as to inspire the rest of us.

We delight in St. Peter dying on a cross upside down, flouting the world and insisting upon the more painful posture of being crucified upside down because he felt he was not worthy to share the same dying posture as his Lord. We delight in St. Lawrence being martyred by being roasted alive on a Roman grid-iron and quipping, “You can turn me over; I’m done on this side.” We delight in St. Athanasius grabbing the bridle of the horse on which his Emperor was riding to arrest his progress and get his attention and demand justice for his cause. We delight in St. John Chrysostom dying in exile for his fearless proclamation of the truth against worldly compromise and gasping out final words of splendid defiance, “Glory to God for all things!” “Firefly” labels such men “big damn heroes”. The Church labels them, “saints”. I am content with either label, since both labels hold them up to the People of God for admiration and imitation. Big heroes indeed.

Of what does such big heroism consist? Briefly, it consists of three things.

First, it consists of the recognition that we do not belong here. Our true home is in heaven, in the Kingdom of God, and on earth we live as mere sojourners and exiles. Prior to our baptism, we belonged to this age. We were primarily Jews or Greeks, Americans or Canadians or Russians or Serbs. We owed our ultimate allegiance to the flags of this world, and knew no higher loyalty than could be sung in national anthems. Baptism does not strip us of our patriotism or our love of our family, tribe or country. But it does give us a new patria, a new homeland, a new citizenship. As St. Paul said, our ultimate and defining citizenship is now in the heavens, from which we eagerly await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20). Baptism was our transformation from being “children of the body” (as the baptismal prayer says) to being “children of the Kingdom”, citizens loyal to a different King. After baptism we no longer belong to this age with its loyalties and agendas. When we arise from the saving water, we belong to the Kingdom of God, and are now fellow-citizens with all those who love the Lord Jesus, though they come from “every nation and tribe and people and tongue” (Rev. 7:9).

Secondly, this heroism consists of a willingness to suffer for truth, out of loyalty to our King and His Kingdom. As an old rock song said, “If you believe in forever, then life is just a one night stand.” The saints knew this, and they were prepared to endure whatever came during this life for the sake of eternity. What was inverted crucifixion, or being barbequed on a grid-iron, or enduring Imperial displeasure, or dying in cold exhausted exile, compared to the glories of the age to come? What was fasting and vigil and ascetic exploit and podvig? For all these sufferings were just part of a one night stand; the glory to come would last forever. As St Paul said, this “momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Any earthly persecution, any suffering, could be endured for the sake of that glory.

Thirdly, this heroism consists of living for the applause of God and His saints, rather than for the applause of those on earth. However we choose to live, there will be both applause and catcalls, both admiration and disdain. There is no way (settle it now in your heart) that everyone is going to like you. As our Lord said, “Beware when all men speak well of you” (Lk. 6:26). If we live with any integrity at all, some will love and admire and applaud us, while others will hate and disdain and hoot at us. The only question is, whose applause do you value? If we live for the world and according to the world’s values, then the world will love us, and speak well of us, and tell us how wonderful and enlightened we are, and will reward us. Christ, however, will be ashamed of us, and His saints will hang their heads. On the other hand, if we live for Christ and His Kingdom, then the world will turn up its nose at us and say all manner of evil falsely against us, for His Name’s sake.  But the saints will applaud us, and Christ will look on us with joy and satisfaction, and we will hear at length the longed for words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” For those words and that smile we who aspire to be saints cheerfully endure all things.

Great Lent calls us all to be saints, to be the champions of God. It calls us to settle it in our hearts that our true home is in the Kingdom, and that any amount of suffering for that Kingdom is to be welcomed as a gift. It calls us to listen only for the applause of heaven, and to endure the fleet and fading jeers of men. And if we use Great Lent as we should, what does that make us? Big heroes, sir. Ain’t we just.