Who am I? This is the question that we all start asking consciously right from the age of reason. But it has its beginnings perhaps even earlier, as infants when we are weaned and begin to walk, becoming independent and separate from the mother. This identity question becomes even more acute during adolescence at the threshold of becoming adults. I am not too sure what it could mean for the elderly. As I live through my 40’s I see certain serenity come over me as I ask myself: Who am I? The feeling about that question is unlike it was in my teens and twenties, and even in my thirties.
In answering the question of ‘who am I’ we rely on the help of others. Basically we define ourselves in relationship with others. Simply, it could be based on what others say about us, or more deeply it could be drawn from our own evaluation of how we interact with others. In any case, others become mirrors that help us become aware of who we are. In some cultures individuals might take others’ reactions more seriously than in some other cultures. At any rate, at a particular stage in life, we also begin to realise that the others’ reaction to us only brings out how we appear to the world, and not necessarily who we are in the depths of our selves.
In the gospel today we see Jesus grappling with this question of ‘who am I?’ It seems to be a self-reflexive question and at the same time it is an invitation for those around him to better see who He IS. It is an invitation for us to ask ourselves, who is Jesus for me? Let us try to answer these two questions as we reflect on the gospel text of today:
- What did this incident mean for Jesus himself and perhaps even for the apostles?
- And what does it mean for us today?
The self-identity of Jesus
As a human person, we can say that even Jesus had to wrestle with his own identity: who am I? For him, the question would have been even more seriously difficult to answer given his human and divine nature. So he continues to ask: who am I?
- At the age of 12, when the boy Jesus was lost in the temple (Lk 2:42-52), I would like to think that it was his first reported experiment with his own identity. On finding him, his mother reprimands him: ‘My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.’ It is not by chance then that the boy should reply to his anxious mother: ’Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ Jesus seems to become aware, at least according to Luke, that his real Father is not Joseph the carpenter! And that understanding of his genealogy gives him an insight into his own identity.
- His baptism and temptations were a step forward in his understanding of his self, and answering the question: who am I? During the baptism of Jesus, as we might recall, there was a voice that was heard. In the Gospel of Matthew the voice is addressed to the crowd around: “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him” (Mt 3:17). But in Mark (1:11) and in Luke (3:22), the voice is addressed to Jesus himself: “You are my Son; today have I fathered you.” This marks the beginning of the self-understanding of the adult Jesus, as the ‘Son of God’. And during the temptations, the tempter asks him: “If you are the son of God…” (Lk 4:3,9). Jesus begins to get a deeper understanding that being the Son of God does not mean that he is going to be free from suffering, or that he can use his powers for himself.
- Later as Jesus begins his public ministry, it is the people who are possessed who recognise Jesus as the Son of God and shout out to him: “You are the Son of God” (Lk 4:41); “What do you want with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?” (Lk 8:28).
- Let us focus on the gospel of today. Earlier in the same chapter from Luke that we heard read today, it is Herod the Tetrarch who asks, “Who is this I hear such reports about” (Lk 9:9). Perhaps this question has reached the ears of Jesus. The apostles have been away on ministry (Lk 9:1-6). On their return Jesus has not had sufficient time to be alone with them, he listens to their stories (Lk 9:10), but before he could give his own feedback “the crowds got to know [where they were] and they went after him” (9:11). The multiplication of the loaves follows (9:12-17). The apostles have ministered in the name of Jesus, they have seen his miracles, and they have heard him preach about the Kingdom of God (9:11), and before Jesus could embark on that Lukan journey to Jerusalem (9:51), now it is time for debriefing: “Who do the crowds say I am? … Who do you say I am?” Jesus has prepared himself for this moment through his own personal prayer (9:18). Peter’s reply becomes an affirmation of the growing conviction of Jesus about his own nature and ministry: “The Christ of God” (Lk 9:21). Interestingly, this acclaim in Luke is not as explicit as in Matthew, where Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). And in Luke, Jesus does not praise him either.
- However, soon this will be confirmed in the transfiguration (Lk 9:28-36), where Jesus is again introduced to the apostles as the Son of God (9:35). And Peter would like to remain in that experience for ever (9:33).
- In any case, the final stroke of evidence on the nature of Jesus as the son of God is only at the resurrection of Jesus.
Our own experience of the uniqueness of Jesus
I am more than convinced that Christianity is not just an ethical system, even if morality is an important component. Christianity is not merely the church – whether it is understood as an institution or as a community of believer. So it may seem. As you might have gathered from my homilies, I believe, Christianity is about the experience of God in the person of Jesus. This experience of God in Jesus is not possible if we do not appreciate the uniqueness of Jesus – the God Man. And this is the core of the gospel of today.
Jesus’ question to the apostles: “Who do you say I am?” is also an invitation to them to a personal experience of his true nature. Having struggled with this question for almost forty years, and through the grace of God, having had a personal experience of Jesus as the Son of God, I can testify that this question cannot be answered by repeating the question and answers in the Catechism. It cannot be answered by theologically reasoning out arguments in our minds. It cannot be answered just because I am baptised, go to Sunday mass, and I am a Christian/Catholic! All these can act as means of preparation, but the catechism, theology, participation in liturgy, could also give us a false sense of complacency: Yes, I am a Christian, therefore I know Jesus. Knowing Jesus is about a personal experience, even in the context of a community. Without that the Church runs the risk of being a mere political structure; and my faith a mere formality.
Of course, the privilege of knowing Jesus is grace of God. And we on our part open ourselves to that grace.