Back in the day, there were many times when my dad and I would be watching some game and the good guys would be down without much chance of coming back and he would say, “We’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em.” As in, the bad guys are overconfident and we are in perfect position for the comeback of the century. Perhaps this was never more true than in the case of Themistocles. Themistocles lived about 500 years before Christ. He was a famous admiral and leader of Athens and he knew the threat of the Persian Empire and their desire to seize his country. So Themistocles inspired his people to construct a fleet of 200 ships. They were built, put to sea, and manned from bow to stern with sailors and warriors. Sure enough the Persians came to invade and Themistocles guided the fleet into position to fight in the close quarters around the multi-pronged land of Salamis, but when the Persians swept in with something like 1000 ships – the Greeks did not want to fight and were planning to head home. Themistocles knew that they could never challenge the Persian fleet on open water and that if they did not fight when they could in the narrow seas and the straits to which he had guided their course, they would lose any advantage against such a huge number of ships and all hope for their homeland would most certainly be lost. What he did next was gutsy. Themistocles sent his servant to the Persian King, stating that he, Themistocles, now sought a victory for the Persians and hoped to be rewarded for his change of heart. He said that the Greeks were ready to try and escape (which was true) and that the Persians could hinder their flight, and destroy all their sea forces if they acted quickly. The Persians therefore surrounded the whole area with their ships and advanced – tightening the noose – and Themistocles had ‘em just where he wanted! In other words, so long as there was any opportunity to escape for a time the Greeks had wanted to flee and Themistocles could not rouse them. However, now that there were surrounded and would have no choice but to fight – fight they would. With their backs against the wall, they battled like lions and in the close quarters of the straits of Salamis – the numerical advantage of the Persians was lost. As the Persian ships began to sink, the invaders melted away.
Now, in every good ship there are three types of leaders. You need a navigator – someone who can see what’s coming ahead and help direct the course. You need a first mate. That is somebody who can be a mediator between the captain and the crew and help relay information both ways – up the chain of command and down. And you need a captain – somebody who is the king, the boss, the 800 pound gorilla, king of the Jungle to ultimately be the decision maker. Themistocles played the role of the navigator/seer over the whole battle – and also the Captain and decision-maker. But, Christ has all three of these leadership traits and so in the Head of His Mystical Body, the Church, we have prophets (scholars and mystics) – who are like our navigators, priests who fulfil the role of first mate – right there in the trenches, and bishops who wield the authority of Christ the Head in their diocese – ultimately looking to the pope, our Holy Father in Rome for leadership in faith and morals. But even the pope has to listen to an authority beyond Himself. He has to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and the doctrines that have been handed down in the Church. So, with respect to the Church militant, he is the head. In respect to God, he is part of the body.
We are constantly called to conversion – to understanding our role about when to lead and when to follow. The key to conversion is humility. Jesus Christ Himself “did regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather He emptied Himself taking the form of a slave.” If Christ humbles Himself, it is so that we can follow His lead.
But, we often fail and we have a word to describe a group of people that loses their sense of humility and forgets how they best operate harmoniously to the point that they seize power – we call it a mob. That Greek Admiral Themistocles was essentially facing the beginnings of a mutiny by a mob. He not only saw the great conversion they required, but had the humility to realize he could not change their hearts on his own. He had to reach out and influence even his enemies to hem them in on all sides so that they sensed again their need for leadership – they were a body that needed a head.
Christ certainly knows the tactics of the devil and He knows the will of the people. Time and again they wanted to make Him a king, but only a king of their stomachs – to give them a little more comfort on this earth. They wanted to carry Him off in mob fashion after the multiplication of the bread and fish, but He slipped away. So, He casts aside earthly power and He even allows evil to encircle Him and seemingly take every avenue of escape away. His very life is lost, but never His soul – and His soul returning to lift up His Body has given us all a means of escape.
Christ does the same with us. He does not try and force His will upon us and allows us to sin. It is our ways that are shortsighted when we sin. He established a Church that is a permanent prophet to the world who always proposes the truth and yet is perpetually mocked and ridiculed, even as it teaches the same singular truth capable of liberating mankind from isolation and darkness. Our Lord has our enemies right where He wants them, and He even allows us to be encircled that we might realize our need to make our stand with Him. He is the true leader in every facet. His truth does not change.
We may think we would love a God who would adapt to our way of thinking, but then we could not find communion with everyone else. If God was always changing what was true to satisfy each individual – we would never all share the same truth. His truth is Love, the Love of a Father for His children, the love of a Brother for His little brothers and sisters, and in the Eucharist – the love of a Father offering Christ His Son and our Brother for us all. The truth of Christ’s teachings do not change, and we can see the more clearly if we band together in the humble need for conversion.