He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
Matthew 16: 15-17
Here in Rome we are today celebrating a great feast day and holiday, the Feast of Peter and Paul. Amidst the early summer public celebration, however, the gospel reading invites us to reflect on the core question of Christian faith: “But who do you say that I am?” At the time of Matthew’s gospel, this was a matter of intentional and evolving identity of the community of believers. They are to identify themselves and build a way of living in the world around the belief that Peter expresses, that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Of course, this remains always a question for the believing community throughout the ages, perhaps in our highly secularized time one that is reasserting itself with greater urgency.
The question, however, is also a most personally challenging one. At its core, the question of who is Jesus is not one that culture, society or church can answer for us, but rather, it is one that we must dare to confront from the ground, the truth of our own being as, in Soren Kierkegaard’s terms, “a solitary individual.” It is not a question for which we have a fixed and eternal answer, but rather one that questions us anew at each moment of our lived reality and formation.
There is no avoiding the truth that a personal and direct encounter with the question of Jesus to Peter is a moment of personal judgment. The fact that the judgment is, as it is described in the gospel story of the rich young man, one in which Jesus looks on us “with love” does not make it any less difficult and even frightening. What is left of us when there is no one there but ourselves and Jesus? Who am I stripped of the facades of my various social identities. If, in truth, Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” then there is nothing that matters but him and who I am in relationship to him. I, in any authentic sense, only exist within that relationship.
This is precisely why I so often avoid living only with and for him. As Adam and Eve, I know myself to be naked and so I hide. This existential shame is, according to Teresa of Avila, what the devil uses to keep us at a distance from God, to keep us from praying. Perhaps the most important time for prayer, for acknowledging who Jesus is and so who we are, is precisely at the time when we “feel” least like praying. The time to stop and be still is especially at the moments when we feel most dispersed, anxious, and frantic.
The Publican is a model of prayer in that he can only acknowledge his own emptiness and sinfulness: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Often, we don’t like the feeling of the truth about ourselves, and our culture, including well meaning others, will suggest that our sense of our sinfulness is a pathology, and that we have to improve our poor self-image. However, to have glimpsed even for a brief flash the reality of God in Christ, the truth that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is to know our own distance and infidelity on a daily basis to that truth. So the great danger for me is that I do religious activities and duties and keep busy with work, including work for others, but that I avoid the face to face encounter with the question Jesus poses today. It is very difficult to honestly face the truth that Jesus is the Christ and that I, as I am in my poverty and sinfulness, am loved and called. The reality of daily living is always breaking in to remind me of how small I am and of how great is my need for Jesus. Today we are reminded to embrace such moments in prayer and to trust that he continues to look on us in love, even at this moment.
I say that no one who has begun to practice prayer should become discouraged by saying: “If I return to evil, matters will become worse should I continue the practice of prayer.” I believe matters become worse if one abandons prayer and doesn’t amend one’s evil ways. But if people don’t abandon it, they may believe that prayer will bring them to the harbor of light. The devil carried out a great assault upon me in this matter. Since I was wretched, I spent so long a time in thinking it was a lack of humility to practice prayer that, as I have already said, I abandoned it for a year and a half – at least for a year; I don’t remember well about the half. And doing this was no more, nor could it have been, than putting myself right in hell without the need of devils to urge me on. Oh, God help me, what great blindness! And how right the devil is to direct his attacks so that the soul give up prayer! The traitor knows that he has lost the soul that practices prayer perseveringly and that all the falls he helps it to take assist it afterward, through the goodness of God, to make a great leap forward in the Lord’s service. No wonder he’s so concerned!
Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, Chapter 19