The myths of the Ancient Greek and Latin poets tell us the tragic tale of Phaeton, the son of Apollo. Apollo, the god of light, carried out the enormously important task of driving the flaming chariot of the sun across the sky each day. Now, Phaeton was raised without knowledge of his father’s identity, and when he discovered, as he eventually did, who his father was, he approached him in the temple of light and asked to drive “the car of day.” Apollo, full of love and concern for his son, denied him his request. Again and again, Phaeton begged to drive the chariot, but each time Apollo refused. Finally, coming to his father another day, Phaeton besought him for proof of his sonship. Not wishing his son to be denied, and in order to verify his hereditary claim, Apollo consented to whatever Phaeton should ask.
As the legend goes, Phaeton then told his father, for the last time, that he wished to drive the chariot of the sun. Apollo begrudgingly granted his request, but begged him to withdraw it. The next morning, as night passed through the world’s western gates, Phaeton seized the reins of his father’s chariot. He was a strong youth, but as he mounted up the sky, the chariot’s horses proved too wild and violent for him to control. He careened toward the earth, and, as the chariot crashed into the ground, the world was set ablaze.
This myth contains certain deep, perennial truths about the human condition that continue to resonate with us today. The first bears upon a son’s desire for acknowledgement, for it seems at times we Christians are tempted to believe we must prove ourselves worthy before our Heavenly Father. In reality, however, we cannot do anything to prove our filial relationship with God, for He has claimed us as His own. As Saint Paul says, “We were buried with him by Baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). In Baptism, God bestows on us a character by which we remain forever marked as his. Furthermore, he grants us a share in his own Holy Spirit through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. We are made his sons and daughters in the free gift of the sacrament of Baptism.
Another profound truth this myth conveys is the need for humility. True humility, that is, knowing oneself as one is, proved to be beyond Phaeton. Had Phaeton known his limits and his place in the order of the world, he would not have tried to undertake a task that lay forever beyond his reach. Similarly, the Christian ought to have an appropriate self-knowledge. In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul tells us that “grace was given to each according to Christ’s measure” (4:7); and, further on, he says, “He gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers” (4:11). In other words, there is a wide variety of interests, personalities, and accomplishments among the saints; we do not have to fit a stock mold. So, rather than building up visions of achievement for ourselves, as Phaeton did, we must be open to God’s plan.
Finally, we need not fear the abandonment Phaeton suffered. God will not forsake his children; this he has promised us: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). The love our Almighty Father has for us is so great that, even if we insist on “driving the chariot” and thereby find ourselves in the midst of a truly dire situation, we have but to call on his Holy Name, and we will find our Father running to our side.
Image: Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The Fall of Phaeton