Isaiah 50: 5-9a; Mark 8: 27-35
Each year around the anniversary of 9/11 I try to reflect a little on where we’ve come from and where we still need to go into the future. I decided a couple years ago to stay away from news and media that day because it tends to be a rehashing of all that took place that day, which I don’t know really how healthy that is for any of us. None of us around at that time will ever get those images out of our minds. However, we live with this sense that we mustn’t forget; not really sure just how possible that is anyway. Maybe, on our part, it’s a little bit of survivors guilt. We always speak of how united we were after that and then followed by great division. Now I’m not sure how much of that is true or how much is imposed upon us, but a reality nonetheless.
I think that division is somewhat related to the question posed by Jesus today, asking who people say he is, a question of identity. As much as we don’t want to forget, it, at times, also holds us back from moving forward. That happens as a country, as a city, as individuals, and as a community. With dwindling numbers and aging parishes, there is always a question of who are we, not wanting to let go and yet know we must go deeper into the mystery of the identity that we are. So much of our identities are through the relationships we have and are a part of. Others tell us who we are or should be. We identify by the groups we are a part of and so on. Yet, at some point, we begin to question whether there is something more to us, as individuals and as community. What has been imposed on us and what we’ve taken on no longer suffices.
The same is true in this gospel when Jesus asks the question of the disciples. They start by saying what everyone else is saying about him not who he really is. Some say Elijah, others John the Baptist, and the list goes on. Even Peter answers with the correct answer and yet still gets it wrong. He knows what Jesus wants to hear, you are the Christ, and yet, Peter doesn’t know what any of that means. Jesus tries to tell and Peter immediately rebukes any sense of suffering that accompanies. Yet, in Mark’s gospel, today marks a pivot on the plot. The shift now becomes Jerusalem and the prediction of the passion that will ensue, and the story takes a dramatic turn. The true identity of Jesus, and for that matter, us, will be revealed in the mystery of life and death that we call the Cross; not something out there somewhere, but right here in our very hearts. The disciples still don’t know their own identity, other than in relation to Jesus and as fishermen. They haven’t found the gift nor paid the price to get to the point where they too can, as Jesus says, “deny himself, take up his cross, and then follow me.” They don’t even know what that means yet or what it is that they are being asked to give up; but they will soon enough.
Long before there was ever such an image of the Cross there was Isaiah, who we hear from in today’s first reading. Isaiah never gives up on the divine identity within. No matter how much is suffered, the rejection as a prophetic voice, the shame, no matter what, Isaiah recognizes that there is something more that drives him forward and he doesn’t give up on it. He remains true to the restlessness within himself, even in the face of such adversity, knowing that there’s got to be something more for him. He continues to seek out that divine identity within; even for him, the mystery of life and death that makes him who he is, his true identity in the great Christ. When it seems that God is asking the impossible of him or of the disciples, they recognize, even if they don’t know it at the time, that this restlessness and this tension within them keeps them moving forward in pursuit of the divine and their true identity.
It’s hard work, which is why we probably avoid it at all costs. It’s easier to accept how others identify us, reference us, tell us who were supposed to be, but we also will never be satisfied with that. There will always be that nagging, the restlessness, and that tension, trying to pull us deeper into this mystery we call faith and the mystery we call us, our community, our city, and our nation. We must accept both halves of the mystery, life and death, but it is the fullness of our identity in Christ and people of faith. We will never be satisfied with anything other than who we really are, but we must be patient with the tension and not be quick to fix or go back to what was, to throw everything out, before we know what it is that we are being asked to deny and give up. We pray that we have the patience to sit with the tension and the question of our own identity, and to know when the Cross calls us to surrender into the great mystery and become the fullness of who we truly are in Christ.