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Who do you say that you are?

June 22, 2013

A reflection for the 12th Sunday, Ordinary Time, Year C
Zechariah 12:10-11; Psalm: 63; Galatians 3:26-29; Luke 9:18-24

Whenever I interview someone for a TV or Radio show, often I ask them how they want to be introduced. I am always interested in how they introduce themselves. Of course, most of the time it has to do with the context of the interview so they introduce themselves by what they do: “I’m a professor of theology” or “I’m a Canon Lawyer” or “I’m the Bishop of Whitehorse.” Sometimes it’s who they are, “I’m a priest” or “a Carmelite nun” or where they are from, “I’m a Jesuit from Malta.” I’ve been amazed at people who introduce themselves as parents, “I’m a dad” or “I’m a husband” or “wife.” “I’m a grandparent.” I am a husband, a father of two boys, a deacon, a film and TV producer, I host a TV and a radio program, I work at Salt + Light Media and I am from Panama. I live north of Toronto, I am dog owner and I love pizza.” How you introduce yourself will depend on the context of the conversation or the relationship, but who do you say that you are to yourself? When you are alone, who do you say that you are? When you are alone at prayer, who do you say that you are to God?

Today Jesus asks his disciples, who they say that He is. We’ve all heard this story many times, because it’s in all three synoptic Gospels, Matthew (16:13-20), Mark (8:27-30) and Luke (9:18-24). Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am,” and Peter answers correctly, “You are the Christ.” But in Luke’s version of the story, Jesus goes straight to the point. There is no praise for Peter, as there is in Matthew, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah… You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” And there is no rebuke of Peter when he refuses to accept the suffering of Jesus as in Matthew and Mark, “get behind me Satan.” Luke goes to the heart of the matter. Jesus doesn’t deny that he’s the Christ (in fact, the term “Son of Man” referred to the Messianic figure) and tells them what it means that He is the Christ, “the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, be killed and be raised on the third day.” (Lk 9:22) This made no sense to the disciples. This didn’t fit with their idea of Messiah.
The Jewish people had been expecting a Messiah for a long time. But there wasn’t any one concept of Messiah. Messiah is a Hebrew word that means “anointed one” – the word in Greek is “Christ.” The Messiah was someone who was going to come at the end of times and restore peace to Israel. But was he going to be a king like David, winning many battles and uniting the kingdom? Or would he be a political leader like Moses who went against Pharaoh and liberated the Israelites from slavery? Would he be from the priestly line of Levi, like Moses and Aaron? Would he be both priest and king like Melchizedek? Or would he be a fiery prophet like Elijah who challenged King Ahab and his evil wife Queen Jezebel and killed all the priests of Baal? Or would he be a different kind of prophet, like Jeremiah? Jesus says that the Messiah is someone different: He is one who is to suffer and die.

That’s the image of the Messiah that we hear about in the book of the Prophet Zechariah. Zechariah is writing to the Jewish people after the Babylonian exile. Remember, they’ve lost everything: Their land, their king, their kingdom, their temple and it seemed that God had abandoned them. This is the period of time when the concept of a Messiah who was going to save them becomes really strong. Zechariah is writing about this Messiah: “Grace will fall upon the House of David” and this grace is linked to a mysterious character, who will be “pierced” or “thrust through” (Zech 12:10) – who will be killed and whom people will mourn. That’s the Messiah. The Gospel of John makes that connection during the Passion reading that we hear on Holy week every year: “”They will look on the one they have pierced.” (John 19:37) Salvation somehow comes through this Messiah’s suffering.

But it’s hard to understand. God is God. He can do anything He wants. He can save the world by having one big party. Why does He have to save the world by suffering and dying? Because He saves us by loving us totally – giving himself totally for us – taking our place, so that we don’t have to die. Because the consequence of sin is death – and I don’t mean the first death, the mortal death; I mean the second death, the eternal death. Christ takes our place so that we don’t have to die, and in rising up on the third day, he destroys death for ever so that we can live eternally. That’s the role of God as Messiah, not just suffering and dying, but also being raised on the third day. That’s what we celebrate every time we come here at Mass when we share his body and drink his blood.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Yes, he’s the Messiah, the Christ, but what does it mean for us to follow a suffering Messiah? He tells us: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Lk 9:23) We need to follow him in his suffering. But denying yourself doesn’t mean denying yourself chocolate or not buying nice things – it could mean that, but what it really means is not living your life looking at yourself first. Denying yourself means looking at God first; always! It means putting God first, always. Which is why Paul writes to the Galatians that when we clothe ourselves in Christ, we all become one, “there is no Jew or Greek, there is no woman or man, no slave or free” (Gal 3:28) because when we put God first, all those little differences don’t mean anything any more. When we put God first, none of our little petty needs mean anything anymore. Denying myself means not living my life guided by what gives me pleasure, what’s good for me, what will lead to my success; Denying ourselves means living our lives guided by what God wants, by what gives Him pleasure, by His plans, by His will, His design for us. [Remember, if you want to know God’s will, listen to the Church.] When we put God first we live our lives with the words of today’s Psalm on our lips: “My soul thirst for you, my body faints for you, O Lord, my God.” (Psalm 63:1) When we put God first, picking up our cross daily is not an act of suffering, but an act of love (because His suffering was an act of love); in fact, it’s not suffering at all!

St. Francis de Sales has a beautiful image for this: A little child with one hand holding on to the Father’s hand, while with the other picking berries. Let’s be careful not to let go of the Father’s hand so that we can take more stuff for ourselves.

Who do we say to Jesus that we are? Are we trying to be disciples while at the same time trying to look after ourselves, seeking our own benefit, seeking what’s good for us first, doing what we want; or are we going to be disciples who follow Christ, looking to Him first – following Him no matter what, even if it leads us to the Cross? ‘Cause that’s the only way to gain eternal life.

From → English, Reflections

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