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One of the features of our modern life is the cult of celebrity. It is made possible by the mass media and the spirit of egalitarianism. Some are celebrities because of famous achievements – athletes, scientists, explorers or entertainers. Some are notorious because of spectacular failings: rock stars in trouble with authorities; film starts with huge-divorce settlements; politicians who fall from grace. Other celebrities are “empty” celebrities – winners of TV competitions, the super-rich not famous for anything else. These all attract public attention perhaps because in some way they are glamorous.

But do you have a real hero? Are there figures who inspire you who are not necessarily celebrities? Is there someone you try to emulate? All Saints Day is a good time to correct our fascination with celebrity. A celebrity is not necessarily a hero. A hero is not necessarily a saint. We cannot stop the cult of celebrity, but we can see it for what it is: a focus on glitz and glamour, rather than quality.

Reflecting the Light
Marcus Braybrooke, President of the World Congress of Faiths and an Anglican priest here in Oxford Diocese, was asked by his publisher to put together a list of 100 people who have had the greatest influence on the spiritual life of the world. In one sense it is a collection of 100 heroes. He emphasises that not all his choice are necessarily holy. Many of the individuals he describes were very human. But MB’s special contribution is to put forward the lives of people who were influential. These people’s lives, their ideas or the work they did have changed for better, the lives of many other people, whether they followed them or not. These are, as the title of the book describes them: Beacons of the Light.

These people have reflected or shone spiritual light by their lives. Not all shone perfectly, but all have helped others by to live by a greater light. Not all are Christian or from the Bible. The author’s knowledge of other religions provides him with deep respect for those of many faiths who have nevertheless shone with that one light that brings truth and freedom to the whole world. MB says that we tend only to know about our own saints and part of the idea of his book is to help more people appreciate those who have lived spiritually influential lives all over the world and in many different ages.

Hebrews Hall of Fame
One of the best books in the Bible about faith for Christians is the letter to the Hebrews. In chapter 11 there is a short list of heroes of the faith who would be recognised by Jews, Christians and Moslems. Abraham, Moses and Jesus are some of them. The writer emphasises how these and others named lived by faith in God’s promises. They searched for a homeland. This was not an earthly place so much as a spiritual homeland. They longed for something better and lived and worked for their vision. To use MB’s image, they knew there was a perfect light shining from a greater horizon, and strove to live by faith in that light. [In Isaiah 65 the same spiritual place is called God’s holy mountain where there is no hurt or destruction.] What Hebrews says to us is that we can be inspired by the faith of these spiritual heroes. In their case they never saw the fulfilment of their hopes but they kept going because of their faith in the light. So we, too, can follow their example, and for Christians, we set our faith and hopes on Jesus, who endured the cross for the sake of the light.

Different Kinds of Heroes
One of my father’s misquotes was: “One man’s mate is another’s python.” A hero to one person may not be that to another. There is a variety of heroes and in his book MB explains that he included people who were different in the ways they influenced the world. I will pick just 4 out of his list of 12 categories. I will give some examples, not all of them Christian. It may help us think about who is important to us.

1. Founders of Religion: Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad are the
three most obvious examples. The followers of Jesus make up about a 3rd to ½ of the world’s population, and about half that number of Moslems. Although Hinduism is the next largest religion, it is very hard to point to a specific founder of that faith, so the next most influential founder was Buddha.

2. Full of holiness: these are people you might call “real” saints
because of the quality of their lives. For Christians examples are St Francis of Assisi and Mother Julian of Norwich. For some Moslems, especially those who follow the more mystical tradition of Sufi, Ibn Arabi who was a Medieval Spanish Moslem, was radiant in his holiness.

3. Formative influence on their own religion: many individuals
made very important contributions to the shape of the faith for future generations. In Christianity St Paul in the NT and St Augustine of Hippo in the 3-4th CE were a huge influence on how the faith grew. For Hindus the philosophers Sankara and Ramanuja are very important to what they believe. Sankara lived 800years before Christ and Ramanuja around the time of the Norman conquest of England. In Judaism the great thinker Maimonedes lived in the Middle Ages. His work also helped some of the great Christian thinkers who lived in the centuries after him.

4. Famous people who have changed the modern world: in case
you think all the people I’ve named so far are a bit obscure or remote, there are modern beacons of the light, too. These have especially changed the real world, not just been saintly people who had special insight about God or religion. There are those who have brought about peaceful change like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Some have championed the oppressed or persecuted like Mother Teresa and Elie Wiesel (holocaust survivor). Some have won the Nobel Peace Prize because of their lifelong work like the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

Who is your personal hero of faith?
I wonder who you would count in your own list of Beacons of the Light? For Christians our foremost is Jesus, the “Pioneer and Perfector of our faith” as it says in Hebrews. He is not just a hero or a beacon but we believe he is the light, the Light of the World. He is the one in whom we put our faith. But there are others who have reflected that light and influenced us in our faith journeys. It may be a relative or family member: many would say their mothers have been a great influence in
their lives. It may be a teacher, a trainer or even a minister! Today gives us a chance to turn our attention away from empty celebrity and remember those who have made a real difference in our lives. It is a day to remember and give thanks for those who inspire us to seek the light that shines from a better country. It is a day to renew our resolve also to live by that light.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith