Then Jesus and his disciples went toward the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he questioned the disciples and said to them: “Who are people saying that I am?” They said in reply: “[Some say] John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.” And he questioned them further: But you — who do you say that I am? Peter answered him: “You are the Messiah.” . . . [Jesus said:] If anyone wishes to follow after me, let that person deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Mark 8: 27-29,34
In Chapter 8 we hear the question at the heart of Mark’s gospel. It is the question of Jesus’ identity. It is posed in the very way that the question of our own identity is posed to us. There is our social identity, the one we take on from the world about us and which we cultivate to social purposes. Then, there is the deeper personal and hidden identity. The struggle for the gospel writer is the conflict that permeates our own personal lives and spiritual unfolding. How is the uniqueness of Jesus to be communicated to those who have their common preconceptions of the Messiah? Without corresponding to the expectations of the tradition, how is the “Christ” to be recognized in Jesus? How is God’s deliverance to be known in a crucified one?
The scandal of the cross for us is not only the suffering, rejection, and death of Jesus. It is also life’s requirement that if we are to come to be the truth of who we are we must learn to bear suffering, rejection, and death. In our own search for integrity, our first question tends to be Jesus’ first question to the disciples: “Who are people saying that I am?” From the beginning we take ourselves to be who our families tell us we are. As our family expands to our friends, acquaintances, employers and employees, our clients and customers, our social, religious, and political affiliates, our sense of self develops in response to how they constitute us. We tend to develop an identity that is a response or a reaction to their demands and expectations. We become ratified in the light of their recognition and acceptance.
As a shy only child with a minor but recognizable birth defect, I worked hard to be accommodating and acceptable to the others whom I always feared would be hesitant to recognize and accept me. I tended to be extremely quiet and was, even from the beginning of my life, very slow to speak. Even as I began to speak, my difficulties in the pronunciation of certain sounds led me to be very hesitant in speaking aloud in class or among strangers. The more I watched for the response of others to my words, the more difficult it seemed to express myself. As I result, I increasingly became only the careful, guarded and acceptable one who presented himself externally. I only knew who I was by the identification of others.
When Jesus asks us, as he asks his disciples, “But you — who do you say that I am?” he is also asking us who we ourselves are beyond the one that is constituted by others? The way of following Jesus requires of us that we follow our way. It is way of suffering, rejection and death because it requires our dying to the self that we have created to manage and to survive in the world. The following of Jesus is a way of dispossession. The work of love in our life will often take the form of a harsh and painful reckoning with our own illusions. There will inevitably enter our world persons and situations which will demand more of us than the apparent self that we present to the world. There will, by the grace of God, be situations of work and relationship that we cannot adequately respond to out of the illusions we have created about ourselves. There will be those who will love us enough to be unsatisfied with our feeble attempts to gratify and appease them, who will want to know the one they intuit but who is even a stranger to ourselves. They will appeal to us to be our whole and true selves with and for them. In the face of these demands and appeals we shall experience the pain and the crucible of failure. We shall begin to sense that the recognition our falseness has received is not really the recognition that we crave. We shall touch the deep longing of our spirit “to know as we are known” and to be known by others and ourselves as God knows us.
Adrian van Kaam says that the effect of prayer and of therapy is to change our relationship to the child in us. It is painful and difficult for us as adults to touch the longings of the child to be acknowledged and received as we are, with all our deformities and our fears. It is quite possible that to realize those longings and to begin to live the vulnerable life that is ours will at times lead to the rejection that we so fear and which led us to hide ourselves in the first place. Yet, there is only true life and true relationship to others and the world in such authenticity and integrity.
Jesus asks the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” The condition for following him is to know him, not as they want or need him to be but as he is. It is to be willing to follow the Way with him, not to make of him a projection of their own demands and desires. Many times we live with and among others for years and never know them. We know the person they present to the world, and we either like or dislike that. When, even for a moment, the light of another’s truth shines through, we experience a stirring in our own soul of empathy and even of a love of a different order. This is the universal appeal of the “Christ form” in each of us.
It is “self-doubt” that leads us to look outside of ourselves for acceptance and ratification and, in that process, to lose contact with ourselves. Faith, in this sense, has nothing to do with creedal and doctrinal acceptance. It is rather following the way of our lives in trust, however difficult it is, that we may learn the truth of who we are and allow God to continually form, reform, and transform us through “the ordinary unspectacular flow of everyday life” into the image of Christ that is our true origin and identity.
He devotes himself to his job—
but he is in doubt as to its importance and, therefore, constantly looking for recognition: perhaps he is slowly nearing the point where he will feel grateful when he is not criticized, but he is still a very long way from accepting criticism when he is.
You asked for burdens to carry—. And howled when they were placed on your shoulders. Had you fancied another sort of burden? Did you believe in the anonymity of sacrifice? The sacrificial act and the sacrificial victim are opposites, and to be judged as such.
O Caesarea Philippi: to accept condemnation of the Way as its fulfillment, its definition, to accept this both when it is chosen and when it is realized.
Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, p. 20