Read an Excerpt
Who’s Your Hero?
If you’re like most kids, you probably have at least one. Your hero might be an athlete or a singer—someone who has used his or her talents in ways that you hope to when you get older. Your hero might be a brave firefighter or police officer. Or your hero just might be your own mom or dad.
Good for you!
It’s really important to have heroes. Heroes help us learn how to live. They help us see what’s possible. They give us something to work for as we grow up.
But if you think about it, as great as those kinds of heroes are, there just might be something missing. After all, what’s the most important part of your life? What do you have that is going to last your whole life, no matter where you are or what you’re doing? What is it that’s even going to last after you die?
Your friendship with God. That’s right, your faith.
Sure, life is filled with all kinds of exciting chances and possibilities. God wants you to jump into life and experience them! He wants you to enjoy life and make the most of it. It’s great to work for those goals.
But without a friendship with God that is above, beyond, and underneath all that everyday busyness, our life can seem kind of empty at the end of the day. Without friendship with God, we can also be tempted to use all those wonderful gifts to hurt ourselves and others, rather than help.
So if we’re friends with God, we just might need another kind of hero to add to all the rest. We need some heroes who are close friends with God and who put him first.
Since Jesus rose from the dead and Christianity began, there have been thousands of heroes like that. You probably have heard the names of some of them. Some of the more famous heroes of faith have been recognized by the church as being especially close to God; we call these people saints.
But whether their names start with Saint, Blessed, Venerable, or just Mrs. or Mr., all of these heroes have something in common: They all lived lives of virtue, centered on friendship with God.
Virtue is, quite simply, goodness. There are many ways to be good—being patient, kind, and honest are just a few. Over time, Christianity settled on seven of the most important virtues. These types of goodness really show what loving God is all about.
First there are three spiritual virtues:
Faith When we have faith, God is our best friend. He comes first, no matter what, and we believe what he says is true.
Hope When we have hope, we trust that God’s promises are true, and we don’t let ourselves be discouraged.
Charity Charity is another word for love. When we have charity, we love as God loves, seeing every person we meet as God’s child and treating him or her that way.
Four more virtues are called moral virtues because they are the beginnings of all of our good actions.
Temperance When we practice the virtue of temperance, we treat the things of this world properly. We are grateful for things as gifts of God, but we don’t put them in the place of God.
Prudence When we practice the virtue of prudence, we make wise decisions. We apply God’s love and wisdom to the choices we make.
Fortitude When we practice the virtue of fortitude, we’re strong. We trust that God is with us and that God will help us do the right thing, no matter what.
Justice When we practice the virtue of justice, we treat every person as a child of God. We remember that God created the world to be a good, happy place where everyone is treated fairly.
None of these virtues are given to us when we’re born, ready to use like a present. The seeds are there, but it’s up to us to make the virtues real in our lives. God gives us the grace to live in faith, hope, and charity, but we have to cooperate with him to make it happen.
The people in this book are heroes who brought these seven virtues to life in our world. They’re not superheroes, though—they are just like you and me—human beings who were good at some things and bad at others. These heroes had problems and joys. Some were adults when they did the things we admire them for; others were kids about your age. But being strong or working for justice didn’t come easily to any of them. They had to dig deep within and let God help them, just like you. Their goodness and holiness didn’t happen overnight.
These virtues can be hard to live by, but it’s like anything else: We have to start small. After all, you can probably do big multiplication problems now, but could you always? Could you always hit a ball as far as you can now? Could you always play the violin so well? No, you couldn’t.
You started out small, with the little things. You learned your numbers, then how to add and subtract, then your multiplication tables, and then even harder math. You played T-ball first, then used a pitching machine, and now you’re the pitcher yourself! When you first picked up that violin, all you could do was bang on the strings with your bow, and it didn’t sound so great—but listen to you now!
It’s the same way with the life of faith and virtue. Sure, being strong enough to start hospitals for the poor is pretty amazing—but this strength started somewhere small—perhaps even in childhood, sharing food with a friend, collecting pennies for the poor, and just looking at the world with compassion and love.
These heroes teach us many things. They teach us that no matter who we are, we can be friends with God. They teach us about the happiness and joy that come into our lives when we put our friendship with God first. And they teach us that with God’s help, any of us can change the world. Any of us can be heroes, too!
I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
Jesus Is Born
Did you ever have an invisible friend when you were little? Lots of kids do, so don’t be ashamed to admit it. It’s really just a part of growing up.
These days, your friends aren’t invisible, are they? They’re walking and talking all around you—at school, in your neighborhood, and on your sports teams. It only takes a second for you to remember their names and what their faces look like. You can even use your memory and imagination to see the way they run or hear them tell a really bad joke.
Being friends would be hard if you couldn’t see, hear, or even touch these boys and girls. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a pretty big challenge.
Faith is really nothing more than letting God be your best friend, but that can be hard sometimes. We can’t see or hear God the same way we can see and hear our best friend walking on earth. Being friends with God seems to be different than that. How can we start? How can we know where to meet God and start our friendship of faith with him?
Lucky for us, God understands everything, including this problem. Here’s how he solved it: He became one of us.
Many hundreds of years ago, a woman named Mary and a man named Joseph held a bundled-up baby in their arms. Huddled in a cave that served as a home for animals somewhere around Bethlehem in southern Judea, they counted fingers and toes, kissed a damp forehead, and thanked God for a healthy baby, born safely.
Mary and Joseph probably thought of other things, too, the night that baby Jesus was born. They thought about all they’d been told about him—before he was even born.
They remembered how Jesus had been created by God in a very special way inside Mary, without Joseph’s help. They remembered their long, hard journey from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south, where the government had called them to be counted and taxed.
And they remembered that this birth was full of surprises. Listening to angels and watching the shepherds come to pray and honor their baby Jesus, they understood that he was a gift. He was a gift like all babies are gifts, but even more so. All babies hold promise and hope, but baby Jesus held an even greater, more important promise than any other baby ever born.
An angel had told Mary about this promise when he told her she was miraculously carrying this child. The angel Gabriel had said that Mary’s baby would be called “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”
Talk about a great gift! Can you imagine any greater gift than that?
In Jesus, God gave the world the most wonderful gift it had ever known—himself. This baby wasn’t just a gift for his own family, he was a gift for the whole world. The all-powerful, allloving God who’d created the world was wrapped up in a blanket, being fed by his mother, and peacefully going to sleep.
Sometimes, because God is so great and we are so small, we have a hard time understanding God. We’re sort of like a baby trying to figure out the big grown-up world. It’s very hard for us with our little baby brain to understand what’s going on. In the same way, we are babies in relation to God. We have a hard time figuring out what God is like. Some people have a very hard time knowing that God loves them and that they have a wonderful reason for living.
God knows this, and because he wants us to know and love him, he gave us a great gift to make it easier: Jesus, his Son. God with us. All those big questions we have about God are answered in him. First, the baby Jesus is helpless—what love God must have for us to come among us so weak and dependent! And when we watch the baby grow into a man and see him heal, forgive, and love, we can see that God is all about healing, forgiving, and loving, too.
When we see this same man dying on a cross even though he had done no wrong, we once again feel in the deepest part of our hearts what God’s love really means—that he will do anything for us.
Finally, when the man appears to his friends, who thought he was gone forever, we see how far the gift of Jesus will take us: to eternal life with him—and that means forever.
All babies give us gifts, of hope, of love, of cuteness. The baby Jesus gives us a special gift that no other baby ever gave: the gift of faith. For when we watch this baby, we know who God is and what a good friend he is to us. Knowing this makes it easier for the virtue of faith to grow in our lives.
Faith is believing that God loves you. It’s being best friends with God and letting him lead you to happiness. It’s putting God absolutely first, all the time, no matter what, knowing that you can live forever in happiness with God.
Jesus, God born as a baby, is a gift to you and me and the whole world. He was given so that we can see and hear God talking to us in ways that we can understand, in ways that make it easier to be friends with God.
Let’s see what happens when we open our arms and accept the gift!
JOHN THE BAPTIST
A Hero Prepares the Way
There are times when your faith can definitely make you stand out in a crowd. You might be wearing a cross or religious medal around your neck. Maybe everyone noticed when you paused and said a little prayer before lunch or a test. You didn’t mind, though. Your best friend, God, is there for you all the time. It doesn’t bother you to let others know that you’re there for him, too.
Oh, and speaking of standing out in a crowd—was that you, dressed in animal skins and eating locusts?
No, no. I was wrong about that. It wasn’t you. Or me. It must have been John the Baptist, then.
When we have faith, we don’t just believe in ideas about God. We love him as our Father and our best friend. We’re ready and willing to do what he asks because we trust him. God asks his friends to do different things. Sometimes we’re called to love quietly, and sometimes with a bit more noise. And sometimes some of us are even called to be prophets.
You can read about prophets in the Old Testament. You may have heard of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Joel, and Ezekiel, who were prophets to the people of Israel. But there’s also an important prophet in the New Testament. His name was John the Baptist.
The lives of prophets are often marked by startling, strange events, and John the Baptist’s life was no different. For you see, John the Baptist’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were both rather old. In fact, they were as old as your grandparents—or maybe even your great-grandparents! They were way too old to be having babies of their own.
Elizabeth and Zechariah thought so, too, although they had been praying for a child for many years. One day when Zechariah, a Jewish priest, was praying in the holiest part of the temple, an angel came to him and told him some shocking news: Not only would he and Elizabeth have a child, but this very special child would prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Lord. Of course, Zechariah was a little startled by this and found it hard to believe. So the angel gave Zechariah a sign: He struck him mute—unable to speak.
And mute he remained for many months. He couldn’t say a word to welcome Elizabeth’s pregnant cousin Mary for a visit. He couldn’t run out and announce the miraculous news of his son’s birth. But soon after, God made sure that everyone heard what Zechariah had to say.
The day had come to name the baby. All of the family insisted that the baby should be named after his father. Elizabeth told them that no, his name was to be John, something they didn’t understand and didn’t believe until one more amazing thing happened.
Zechariah, for the first time in months, started talking! He told them that yes, the baby’s name was to be John. So, of course, everyone had to wonder what this amazing baby was all about. God had already done great things in his life. What could be next?
Thirty years later, they found out, and as we read the Gospels, we find out, too. The next time we see John, he is all grown up and living, not with his parents, not in a village or a town, but out in the desert, near the Jordan River.
And yes, he’s wearing those scratchy, hairy animal skins and living on something you may like to eat, honey, and something else you probably wouldn’t eat in a million years—locusts, which are bugs similar to grasshoppers.
More important than his clothes or his diet, however, were John’s words. He lived in the desert preaching and teaching an important message, given to him by God because, of course, he was a prophet of God.
John told the people who traveled out to the desert that they should listen to him. He said that it was time for them to ask God’s forgiveness for their sins and to change their lives because someone very special was coming. The Messiah that the Jewish people had been awaiting for centuries had finally been sent by God and would come among them soon. He baptized people as a sign that they were ready to change their lives to welcome God’s messiah.
One day, just as John promised, the Messiah did come. Jesus came to the river Jordan and told John to baptize him. Now, this startled John because he knew that Jesus had never sinned and so didn’t need to be washed of his sins. But Jesus insisted that John go ahead and baptize him, as a sign to the people of his humanity. It turned out to be a sign of something else as well, for when John poured the water on Jesus, a voice spoke from heaven: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”
But John’s work wasn’t done, even after that. He continued to preach and baptize, telling everyone about Jesus. He also talked about the wrongdoing of religious and political leaders, and this is what finally got him into terrible trouble.
Herod Antipas was the governor of the area in which John lived. John had criticized Herod for marrying Herodias, his own brother’s wife. This made the whole family angry, and John was imprisoned in order to silence him.
One evening, Herodias’s daughter, who was named Salome, danced at a party Herod was hosting. Herod was so delighted with Salome’s talent that he told her to ask him for anything, and he would give it to her. Salome rushed to her mother and asked her what she should say. Herodias saw this as her chance to get rid of a very irritating part of her life. She told Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist.
Herod wasn’t crazy about this idea, because even though he, too, was criticized by John, he still found John an interesting speaker and, as the Gospel of Mark tells us, “he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20). But, of course, Herod couldn’t be shamed in front of his guests by breaking the promise he’d made to Salome, so he ordered what Herodias and Salome had requested. John was executed, his head was presented to the women on a platter, and the voice of this prophet and truth-teller was silenced.
But not forever, right? For when you read the Gospels today, you can still hear the voice of John the Baptist calling you to make good choices and to look for Jesus.
He may have looked and acted rather strangely, but that’s the way it can be when you answer God in faith. Faith means looking to God for guidance and ignoring what the world tells you is right or correct or fashionable. It means listening to God, just as John did, and following the path he calls you to. Sometimes that’s easy, especially if you’re hanging out with others who share your beliefs, but sometimes it can be hard.
John could have said no to God. Any of us can. God doesn’t force anyone to do anything. He especially doesn’t force us to be friends with him in faith. But John said yes. He said yes to friendship with God, no matter where it took him. Right now, two thousand years later, God is offering his love and friendship to you and me.
What’s our answer?
EARLY CHRISTIAN MARTYRS
Heroes Are Faithful Friends
Friends are friends no matter what, right?
Well, you sure hope so. You hope that your friends won’t let you down when you need them most. You depend on them to not reveal your secrets or make fun of you in a mean way.
Friendships can feel really strong and easy to keep in good times. But the test of a friendship happens when, for some reason, we’re tempted to betray our friends. If we can stick out the temptation, we know that our friendship is real.
It’s good to remember that faith is a friendship—a close, trusting friendship with God. We’re F a i t h re loved, supported, and helped by God all day long. We tell him our troubles and our joys. You and God go through each day together, and he will be with you for the rest of your life. That’s a friendship. That’s faith.
Sometimes you might be tempted to betray that friendship, just a little bit. You might be embarrassed to admit that you go to church or pray. You might think it wouldn’t be so bad to hurt someone else’s feelings—just this one time. You might stop reading the Bible or praying at night because you’ve got other things to do. You’re not the first to feel that way, you know. And you won’t be the last.
In fact, Christians have been tempted to betray their friendships with God ever since the beginning, in both big and small ways. And just like any friendship, every time we resist that temptation and stay faithful to that friendship, our faith grows stronger.
For the first three hundred years of Christianity, the followers of Jesus were under great pressure to betray their friendships with him. They lived in what was known as the Roman Empire, which extended from northern Africa all the way up to England at that time. For almost the entire period from A.D. 100 to 313, it was illegal to be a Christian in most of the Roman Empire.
That’s right, illegal—against the law. In our country, you can go to court and go to jail for things like stealing and killing. In the Roman Empire, you would go to jail for those things, too. But you could also be punished by the law if you were friends with Jesus.
How? Every person in the Roman Empire, no matter what their religion, was supposed to honor the Roman emperor as a god. If they would do that—once a year burn a little incense in front of a statue and say, “Caesar is god!”—they were okay and could go on home and mind their own business for another year.
But, of course, Christians refused to do this. They knew there was only one God, and to say anything or anyone else was a god would be a betrayal of their friendship with God. When they stood true and when they refused to honor false gods or the emperor as a god, the Christians got into trouble. Big trouble.
They were put in jail—dark, terrible dungeons. They were sent into exile to desolate islands where they were forced to work in mines. And worst of all, if they were really stubborn and still wouldn’t deny their friendship with Jesus, they were put to death.
The leaders of the Roman Empire did this because they really wanted to discourage others from following Christianity. They also wanted to provide entertainment for the people of the empire. So when they executed Christians, they often did it in public, in the middle of huge crowds gathered in arenas. It was, believe it or not, like a big show.
There are many stories of the deaths of Christians that have come down to us over the centuries. These Christians who died for their faith were—and still are—called “martyrs,” a word that means “witnesses.” They’re called witnesses because that’s exactly what they were doing through their deaths: witnessing to their love for God and their friendship with him—their faith. Some of the more well-known stories of martyrs from those early years include the following:
St. Lucy, St. Agnes, St. Agatha, and St. Cecilia were all young women—perhaps in their early teens—who all suffered terribly for their faith at different times. The stories that have come down to us say that St. Lucy lost her eyes during her torture, St. Agnes was beheaded, St. Agatha was placed on hot coals, and St. Cecilia was suffocated and then beheaded.
St. Timothy and St. Maura were married only twenty days when Timothy, who was in charge of the sacred books of his Christian community, was ordered to turn them over. He refused, and his wife, Maura, was brought to the prison to try to convince him to give in. She wouldn’t cooperate, so both husband and wife were nailed to a wall of the prison, and, so tradition tells us, it took them nine days to die.
St. Marcellinus was a priest who was imprisoned during the last major Roman persecution, around A.D. 304. While in prison before his execution, he convinced many of the love of Jesus, including his own jailer.
There are hundreds—thousands—of other martyrs from these years who endured the most terrible pain. But the strange thing is, the stories that come down to us about their deaths, even those few stories recorded by the Romans who killed them, tell us that most of these women, men, and children who were killed for their faith died with peaceful hearts, sometimes even singing hymns as they were burned or dragged by animals in front of the cheering crowds. Their friendship with God was very, very deep.
Over the past two thousand years, many Christians have decided to die rather than betray their friendship with Jesus. Even today, Christians still suffer martyrdom in some countries. You will read about some of them in other chapters in this book.
All of these brave people may speak different languages and wear different clothes, but they all have something important in common: They are best friends with Jesus, and they can’t imagine turning their backs on him, even if it means suffering.
You probably know how they feel—you can’t imagine turning your back on your own friends. When you’re tempted to, you probably just have to imagine how rotten you’d feel if you did, and that’s enough to set you straight.
Well, when you’re tempted to betray your faith—your friendship with God—remember that feeling. And remember the martyrs of early Christianity. Just imagine if they had all chosen to deny their friendship with God instead of staying true.
Would anyone else have bothered to even look into friendship with Jesus if the Christians had betrayed him? Would it have seemed worth living for, if it wasn’t worth dying for?
MEDIEVAL MYSTERY PLAYS
Heroes Make the Bible Come to Life
What do you enjoy doing with your friends? Probably a lot of things. You probably like to talk, shop, watch movies, or play games.
Once in a while, you might even get bigger ideas. You might spend a whole day building a snow fort or making cookies. You might take more than a day—maybe a week—organizing a neighborhood soccer tournament or talent show or even making a movie. You’re not doing this because anyone told you to but because you wanted to. It’s fun to work on things like that with a friend. You get to know each other better, and when it’s all over, you can look at what you’ve done—whether it’s just a pile of cookies or a homemade movie like Attack of the Mutant Teachers—and you’ll see something solid and real that celebrates your great, kind-of-weird friendship.
When we’re friends with God, we can’t help but want to celebrate that, too. We can do it in simple, everyday ways by taking time to talk to God during the day and listen to his voice in our hearts. But we can get busy, too, when it comes to our faith—our friendship with God—and we can make a big deal of it. We can write a poem or make a picture. We can help with a big project at our church. We might even have fun. That’s okay, you know.
There was a time in Christian history when people absolutely loved to make a big deal of their friendship with God. During the Middle Ages (around 1000 to 1500), faith inspired Christians to build great churches, paint beautiful pictures, and write gorgeous music.
And then there were the plays.
Yes, you heard me right—the plays. Have you been to a theater to see a play? Well, these plays were quite similar, except they weren’t performed in theaters. They were mostly presented outside, in towns and villages all around Europe. These are special kinds of plays called miracle plays and mystery plays.
Anywhere you went in Europe during the Middle Ages, you would find, at one time of the year or another, groups of people dressing up, making sets, and performing plays about God’s friendship. Quite often, the whole town would get involved, and the result would be a huge play with many parts that would take several days to perform.
The medieval mystery plays were about every nook and cranny of faith. Some plays made the Our Father or the Creed come to life. Characters would act out the main points of the prayer, using stories from the Bible. In miracle plays, Mary or another saint would appear to help someone in danger.
Other plays were about particular stories in the Bible. The creation and Noah’s ark stories were popular. Saints’ lives were popular, too. Around Christmas, towns liked to present the story of Jesus’ birth. And around Easter, most large towns presented a play dramatizing Jesus’ death and resurrection—these were called passion plays. Some of these plays could be very long. One version of a passion play presented in France lasted forty days! In one production in Germany in 1437, a priest playing Jesus on the cross almost died, but he was taken down just in time.
You can see that these plays were taken very, very seriously!
There were no theaters during this time, and it really wasn’t appropriate to perform these plays in churches, so most of the performances took place outside. Sometimes the sets were stationary—with the different scenes in a play set up in a row or in a circle—and the audience would have to walk to the various stages to see the entire play.
Other times, the sets were constructed on wagons. Quite often, the presentation of plays was part of a festival or town fair related to a religious feast, and a parade would be part of the festivities. Horses or oxen would pull the decorated stages through the town as a way to get the townspeople excited about the plays!
The plays were written in verse and performed in the language of the people (rather than in Latin, which was the language used by the church). There was great seriousness in the plays, because these were serious subjects, but there were also often humor and clownishness. There was one more thing, something that all the people who watched and put on the plays loved: the special effects.
It may not seem like much to us today, but if you try to imagine living in a time before television and movies, you might be able to feel some of the interest that people had in these effects. Audiences marveled as clouds would part to reveal God sitting on his throne. They would be amazed as angels actually flew through the air. Firecrackers were used to show lightning and large sheets of copper to make sounds like thunder. Large sheets of fabric would look like the waves of the ocean, and some of the more elaborate plays managed to use real water on their stages. Fires full of hot, glowing coals showed the audiences what hell might be like.
The miracle and mystery plays of the Middle Ages were wonderful, creative spectacles. But they were something else, too. The people who came to see them were there because they wanted to understand God better and know more about him. They wanted to see the stories of God’s friends from the past. They also wanted to have a little fun—and, after all, isn’t that an important part of friendship, too?