Who – Jett Villarin, SJ

Mark 8:27-35, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Of all the questions that begin with what, where, when, who, why, and how, the most difficult are the why ones, the ones children learn to ask early on. Why should I eat my vegetables? Why do we have to stop playing? When I was six, I remember asking my parents, why do we have to die?

Even science does not pretend to ask the difficult why questions. Yes, we ask why things fall to the ground when actually we mean how. How is it that things fall as they do? Gravity is the ready answer to the how of falling things. But, as Einstein will admit, even gravity or the curving of spacetime is not a complete answer to the how, much less the why.

The Gospel today has Jesus asking a difficult question. It is not a why question. Who. Jesus asks his friends, who do people say that I am? And you, who do you say that I am?

The who question, the question of identity can be just as bewildering as the why question of purpose and meaning. At some deep level, one is intimately tied to the other, the who to the why, and vice versa.

We can always come up with catechism answers to the who of Jesus’ identity. You are the Christ, the anointed One of God, the long-awaited Messiah who is to save and liberate us from all our suffering. Casually, in the Creed, we recite how indeed he is the only begotten Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.

Wait, suffered? And “was crucified, died, and was buried.” What? How? Why?

Who is this again?

Perhaps we need to be jolted again when Jesus identifies himself with the suffering servant of God (as we hear in today’s first passage from Isaiah). We’ve come to wish and expect servants of God to be immune to insults and lashings and nails on a cross. After all, we know who God is, almighty creator of heaven and earth. God forbid that anything bad should befall his beloved servants, let alone his anointed One, his only begotten Son.

God forbid, we protest with Peter. And we are rebuked for not seeing as God sees. God forbid the cross of Christ, and yet we are told that if we are to be who we are, we are to carry our cross and come after him.

Wait, who are we again? Who does God say that we are? We can recite the catechism: we are created by God out of love, made in the image and likeness of God.

Surely this privileged identity of being begotten by God must mean some power. Only before the cross of Christ do we get to see, however dimly, with God’s eyes that this power has everything to do with love’s willingness to suffer to the very end.

With the suffering servant of God, we discover again who we are when we bear in our bodies the suffering of others, and not just our own. We realize who we are once more when we carry each other’s burdens, each other’s weaknesses, even as we carry our own. We heal again when we endure the cross not out of passive resignation but with faces set like flint, in active trust and surrender.

This pandemic has thrown us into a storm of questions. There are days that seem like we are in freefall. Things falling down, coming apart, questions that remain unanswered. We turn to God for answers to our why questions while God probably has this who question we have yet to answer.

Who do you say that you are? Never mind what people say. You, who do you say that you are?

Pray your answer to be a source of strength and hope in this storm. Pray to answer God: I am your child, your beloved servant, not immune to suffering or fear, but willing still to carry the burdens of others, even as I carry my own. By myself, I am lost, I am nothing. By your love and grace, I become who I am when I bear in my own body the likeness of my redeemer, the marks of the cross of your anointed one, Jesus Christ.

*image from the Internet

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