Anxiety may well be observed as one of the defining characteristics of our age. Clearly, we are anxious about the situation of the pandemic in which we discover ourselves. So much that is uncertain stretches out before us. And yet, what makes this worse, I think, is a deeper anxiety that we were carrying even before we had to confront the coronavirus. Whilst, on the one hand, perhaps as never before, we have the opportunity to celebrate individuality and diversity perhaps as never before have we been less sure about who we are.
In the musical, The Gondaliers Gilbert and Sullivan once suggested ‑ rather prophetically I think of our own time ‑ when, “everybody is somebody, nobody is anybody; if everybody is abnormal, we don’t need to worry about anybody.” And so, we have fallen into the story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybodycould have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about this, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybodythought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
The postmodern celebration of diversity in which everybody is somebody can easily slip, therefore, into a type of fragmentation. We can feel lost, small islands in a vast ocean that threatens to swamp us. We become anxious about who we are. The need to raise our voice, to be noticed, takes on a desperate character – even as we evidenced in the addiction to social media in which everyone is broadcasting who they are rather than genuinely communicating with one another.
In the gospel today Jesus raises the question of his own identity with his disciples. He engages them in a conversation about his identity. Is this concern about identity, the result, too of a radical insecurity? Is Jesus, too, on a desperate search to be identified, to be acknowledged and noticed? Why is this conversation about his identity so important in the narrative of the gospels?
Importantly, the exchange that Jesus undertakes with his friends is not self-serving on the part of Jesus. When Peter replies from the back of the group and out of the probing silence occasioned by Jesus’ persistence with the question, his response identifies not so much who Jesus is in himself, but who Jesus is for others: the Christ, i.e. the one in whom his deepest expectations about life are served in the fullest possible way. It is Peter’s response about what Jesus means for others that attracts Jesus’ endorsement. In other words, Jesus’ understands his identity not as something in itself, not as an end in it itself, but something that shows itself in who he is for others, in the mission that he is accomplishing for others. He is the Christ, the One who brings the presence of God to others, and in bearing that graciousness, brings healing to what is fractured, hope to that which is lost, purpose to that which is confused.
Peter knew Jesus’ deepest identity, he knew Jesus was the Christ, because he had seen the way Jesus was present to others, with others, and for others. He had seen the way Jesus lived beyond his own self-regard, and his own self-concern. He has seen him live with a certain self-forgetfulness at the service of a mission to make present the possibility of God’s invitation in the world. And so, the paradox of the gospel account is that Peter knew who Jesus was precisely because Jesus was not concerned about his identity, but rather about who he could be for others. It was the way in which Jesus gave himself over to a mission received from outside himself that revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Christ.
The entire exchange about Jesus’ identity brings us home to the truth that identity cannot be something achieved as an end in itself. It is like happiness. If we look for happiness or peace as things in themselves, we will never find them. We have to give ourselves over to something else, almost forgetting about happiness and peace, in order to find them. They come not as things sought for themselves but as a consequence of a certain self-forgetfulness. They actually come about when we have stopped looking for them and become more concerned with someone or something outside of ourselves.
It is the same with our own identity. If we go look for it, either personally or institutionally, as something in itself, for itself, we will never really find it. It comes about only as we grow in our consciousness about our mission in life, our purpose in life, our vocation in life which, if it is genuine, always takes us beyond ourselves at the service of others – the service of our families, the service of our community, the service of others around us.
Like the identity of Jesus, our own identity is an ‘event’ that discloses itself in and through a commitment to something other than itself. When we are somebody for everybody, so that nobody is just anybody, the question about our identity is given back its answer. When people see the way in which we live our life, would they too reveal back to us our own God-given identity, as bearers of the Christ, if we asked them who we are, as Jesus asks his disciples who he is?
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