“And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” – Luke 22:61-62
Note: This post was originally published in 2016. I’ve condensed it here in honor of Easter week. It may take a strange turn or two, but stay with me.
David Bowie. Whoa – that’s not a name one normally associates with Easter. But follow me here and we’ll make the connection. I grew up loving Bowie’s work – from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars to 1983’s Let’s Dance his music shaped my own formative love of creating and playing music.
Later, I would appreciate how influential Bowie has been on musicians across the spectrum. Artists as varied as The Killers, Jay Z (that’s right, Mr. Beyoncé),Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta known professionally as Lady Gaga, Radiohead, Lorde, Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, Arctic Monkeys, and countless others attribute much of their direction and style to one phase or another of Bowie’s career.
(Parenthetical sidenote: for an entertaining read, check out this tongue-in-cheek story from the UK’s Mirror on how Bowie eerily predicted the Rise of Kanye West and the Destruction of the World. But I digress.)
Every year at this time, Christians remember their most sacred and Holy week: an ecstatic, triumphal entrance into Jerusalem laden with prophetic symbolism; the crescendo of confrontations with authorities; the somber and mysterious Thursday night dinner where Passover’s traditional ritual meal was replaced by a New Covenant; the poignant retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane symbolizing a fallen Garden of Eden for a final plea resulting in betrayal, arrest, and further betrayal; a sham middle-of-the-night trial before the self-important Sanhedrin and ending before a pompous Roman magistrate cowered into accommodating the mob; the humiliation of public flogging; a mocking, agonizing procession through the very streets so victoriously entered six days before; nailed and hung from a cross reserved for the most vile of offenders while guards laughed, drank and gambled over the very clothes worn during the ordeal; a final gasp and then … death, burial and sorrow. Three days later, the impossibility of a promise fulfilled – resurrection and the defeat of death.
This is the story we share each Easter. Filled with more excitement, intrigue, politics, violence, and redemption than the best Hollywood film. Our focus is usually the same with each telling – Jesus’ destiny with his accusers and his overcoming their most heinous intentions and conquering sin.
So what, then, is the connection between Bowie and Easter? This is where we go on a bit of a journey. In 1977, Bowie released his twelfth studio album, “Heroes.” The album and its title track “Heroes” remain among my favorite pieces by Bowie. The original version, an up-tempo rocker, became an anthem of sorts, even though the lyrics have always been a bit murky.
In the 2013 feature film Lone Survivor I developed an entirely new appreciation for the song. The final credits rolled over Peter Gabriel’s updated version and I began considering how the lyrics, with a bit of rewriting, could poignantly describe the experience of the first Apostles during the last hours of Jesus’ life. And here we begin the connection.
How might that week have looked through the eyes of those closest to Jesus? We certainly get a glimpse in the Gospel stories, yet these retellings are always in the third person. What must it have felt like to be Judas in the moments after he realizes the great tragedy his betrayal would hold; or Peter in the very moment of his denials; or Mary heading to the tomb Sunday morning not filled with hope but instead openly weeping and mourning?
These were not extraordinary men and women – a few fishermen, a tax collector, a thief and liar, a Zealot or two with delusions of defeating Rome, a tent maker and Pharisee, a probable prostitute, a possible outcast from an ancient royal bloodline, various tradesmen, hangers-on from the lowest rungs of first century Palestinian life. Broken sinners all – like each of us.
In the eyes of the Jewish Levitical Priesthood and their Roman overlords, a laughable, motley rabble of would-be revolutionaries; hardly the stuff of regime change. Pontius Pilate thought Jesus was simply misguided saying “I find no basis for a charge in this man.” Herod Antipas, the puppet ruler of Galilee and Perea, ridiculed Jesus and draped him in an ornate robe before sending him back to Pilate.
Yet the men and women making up Jesus’ inner circle each shared a common and ultimately unbreakable bond – they followed a leader whose unstoppable presence and force-of-will would topple empires.
During the weeks and months leading up to Jesus’ final week, their enthusiasm and confidence – perhaps even arrogance – emboldened them. They were in the presence of the Messiah and the overthrow of earthly oppression was surely imminent. It’s easy to understand how they would be emboldened. Jesus had calmed the storm, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, raised the dead, fed the multitudes, rebuked the hypocrites … why should Jerusalem be any different?
Albert Einstein is credited with many sayings. Two of my favorites are “Adversity introduces a man to himself” and “The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives.”
I’m reminded of these in reflecting on the aftermath of the Jesus’ trial and execution. Those same men and women buoyed with faux confidence saw their true characters revealed, and knew fear and shame and humiliation. Not the traits of heroes, but more like the actions of frail, flawed, imperfect humans – just like each of us.
Jesus’ followers were not heroes from their actions before the Resurrection – they became heroes as a result of their surrender to the grace and salvation evidenced by the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.
To believers, the miracle of the Resurrection is manifest and 2,000 years after the event a foregone conclusion. Of course Jesus triumphed; what other outcome could there have been when the Spirit of God Himself takes on human form? But to the men and women of Jesus’ time, and to Paul, Timothy, Silas, Titus and hundreds and then thousands of disciples who followed them, their strength was anything but inevitable. They were not heroes from their actions before the Resurrection – they became heroes as a result of their surrender to the grace and salvation evidenced by the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.
Nearly all of the original Apostles and early disciples of Jesus followed him into death or exile. They did so not with preordained knowledge of Cosmic Supremacy but through that uniquely, divinely-gifted human trait of Faith. They believed and then were empowered to spread the Kingdom of God. They found the heroes within themselves when faced with the greatest tragedy they could ever have imagined.
If I were to rewrite Bowie’s “Heroes” I wouldn’t change that much. I might alter
the 3nd verse to reflect Judas or Peter in the Garden. Or perhaps the 2nd verse to reflect how the Kingship of Jesus redeems the Lost. And maybe change the line “We could be heroes, just for one day” to read “Now we can be heroes, every day.”
The power of God’s grace can make heroes in faith of us all. If we simply believe, accept, listen, and act.
One coincidental footnote – Bowie played a cameo role as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” I doubt he connected the dots…