“Who do people say that I am?”
This question, which we hear in the Gospel this twenty-fourth Sunday, is something that has found an echo in man’s heart. The desire for the infinite, planted in the human heart by God himself, has led man to search for the divine. This yearning is responsible for the phenomena of various religions that we see in the world today. They are paths forged by man’s innate desire to see God’s face and to know his name.
But it is not just enough to seek God; it is important that God himself speak to man. Despite of this call to contemplate the face of God, which springs from man’s heart, man cannot get to know God on his own, nor see the face of God with his own eyes. He needs God’s self-revelation. Without this initiative from God, man is at the risk of inventing an image of God, most often fashioned after man’s image and likeness. From here we could appreciate that not all religions are the same. This is what distinguishes other religions from the Christian faith, which is not just a religion—a movement coming from man; rather it is a faith based on what God reveals to us about himself, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ.
But even then, in our life of faith, even those who believe in the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ still need to listen to the Son of God when he talks to us about himself. Even Christians have the peril of inventing Christ, of fashioning the Son of God out of their own image and likeness. For some he is a revolutionary who sides with the poor and is against the oppressive rich; for some he is a mere tool in order to legitimize their own ends. Thus it could be understood that the question that our Lord presents to his disciples is something that is important in the way we live as Christians.
Who do you say that I am?
From asking the disciples what people think about him, he goes deeper into a personal level. But even then, the reality of who Jesus is does not depend on our personal opinion. Only God can reveal the truth about who he is. Only through faith can we touch the face of God and love it. Faith means possessing a heart that knows how to listen, and listening attentively means that one obeys the Word that one has received through believing.
Both in the gospels of Matthew and Mark we see this scene wherein Jesus asks his disciples this question. In both accounts we see Peter giving the right answer. In Matthew we hear Jesus telling Simon that it was not flesh and blood that had moved him to confess that he was the Son of God, but the heavenly Father. Getting to know Jesus, Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, true God and true Man, is a gift of God: it is a grace that has to be received. It is not a personal achievement, the fruit of intellectual discourse, or one’s own personal reflection. It is a gift that only a humble and listening heart can receive.
But Jesus shows us one more thing about God, about himself: God is love, and not the other way around. Love without God is pure sentimentality, and sentimentality does not save man from death. Nowadays we hear people preaching the opposite, that Love is God, that one has to live according to how one feels at the moment, to act on one’s impulse. No, the God whom we follow is a person, whose essential act is to love, and this love has been manifested to us supremely in Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. The celebrations that we’ve had these days—the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the feast of the Our Lady of Sorrows—had given us a lot of time to reflect on this mystery of God’s love. The Cross is the highest manifestation of God’s love, revealed in Jesus Christ. The Gospel shows the repugnance shown by Peter, who chided Jesus when the latter began to teach clearly how the Son of Man was to suffer greatly, be rejected by the leaders of his own people, be killed and then rise from the dead after three days. The response of the Lord was surprisingly harsh: Get behind me, Satan.
The message of the Cross is scandalous to a world that prizes sentimentalism over sacrifice, the pleasure of the fleeting moment over a love that gives truly of itself. Yet the Cross is the only sign that God brandishes to the world, the only sign through which man can be saved, the only instrument through which God has been glorified and exalted, and through which man has been redeemed. This is the only sign through which God is made known to man.
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.
If such is the sign of the Master, so too must it be the sign of the disciple. Just as the Lord offered his own life as a sacrifice pleasing to his Father, and a saving sacrifice for men out of love, so too those who live under the sign of the Cross must strive to live the same life of Christ: generously giving of itself, sacrificing, loving. If we share Christ’s very life, we too shall share his glory. Nobody can be saved without the Cross. It is only in imitating the life of Christ (aided by his grace that primarily comes to us through the sacraments), a life given up for God and man, that we can save our life. Herein lies the paradox of Christian life. A paradox, not a contradiction: it is in losing our life for God and our neighbor that we gain life eternal; on the other hand, if we tenaciously hold on to it, we lose it.
In our daily life, carrying the cross, making our life a sacrifice pleasing to God and—in Christ—a cause for salvation of our neighbor, means manifesting our faith in our works, a faith in the Son of God that does not remain as beautiful words, but rather shown in charity. The Gospel does not enjoin all of us to come up with mega initiatives to help solve the problem of poverty an unemployment (to some perhaps), but it enjoins to show charity in the most ordinary circumstances of our daily life: swallowing our pride, giving encouragement and peace to those around us in their troubles, etc. Even time spent in being a friend who needs someone to listen to his troubles is a work worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
Let us ask Mary, Mother of Fair Love, that strong woman who stood at the foot of the Cross, to make us worthy of the Cross of our Lord. Only those who have proven themselves worthy to carry the Cross in this life are worthy of the crown of glory promised to those who persevere to the very end. AMEN.