"Who Do You Say That I AM"
Jesus searchingly asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” The episode in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) in which Jesus asks this questions occurs within a fairly long and complex narrative. For our present purpose—which is more for meditation or reflexion—I will not engage in a scholarly interpretation, but bring out some of the meanings which the evangelist seems to be intending. In other words, why does Matthew report this question with its context? What is he saying to us, and why? Homilies this week-end and next will present, I hope, more insights into Christ’s Question than can be offered here.
A master teacher asks a probing question to guide his hearer, his disciple. Christ is the master Teacher and the master questioner. He does not crank out facile answers, but leaves his hearers wondering and seeking the truth by means of questions and provocative stories—often, in his justly famous parables. Heard well and properly, the parables lead one to make a firm decision for or against God. The questions open up a mind to reality, to being examined and searched by God: “Why you are afraid? Don’t you have faith?” “How long have I been with you, and yet you do not know me?” “When the Son of Man returns, will he find any faith on earth?” And today’s great question, the decisive one: “Who do you say that I am?” The answer we give is the life we live—or seek to live.
Jesus is not looking for “the right answer,” for a correct, churchy formulation, such as “You are the Second Person of the Trinity,” or “You are true God and true man,” or even “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” The formulas may be true enough, within the limits of words, and if properly understood; but Christ is looking for far more than words: He is seeking to cause a revelation. Yes, Jesus Christ has come to us, not to cause a revolution in society, but to provoke a revelation in his hearer. By his question, Christ is verbally laying his hand on the heart of his disciples, and seeking to pull back the veil that keeps them from seeing the truth of reality. He does not credit this divine action of unveiling or revealing to himself, but He credits the working of the unknown God, through the word of Christ, in the depth of his hearer’s heart: “No human being has revealed this to you, but my Father.” “The Father” is Jesus’ name for the unknown God, the depths of divinity beyond anything that can be known, felt, seen, experienced in any way. Beyond the Christ who questions you, is the unbounded One, that which simply is, the I AM.
The I AM indeed: for what “the angel of the LORD (Yahweh)” does to Moses at the burning bush, Jesus is now doing in the minds and hearts of his chosen disciples. The kind of response Moses gives to the Presence is extremely rare in human history, and so it is even among the disciples of Christ. For only one man speaks up, only one enters into the divine-human dialogue which Jesus instigates. The other 11 disciples remain silent; whether or not their minds have been unveiled on this occasion, we do not know. Perhaps, at this point, their inner hearts remain veiled. Why? The mystery of divine election (choice) is at work. Christ invited each man to open up to the truth of who he is, but on this occasion, only one responds, only one enters into the process of revelation. Jesus acknowledges this revolution of revelation: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for no human being revealed this to you, but my Father. And I tell you, you are Petros (Peter, Rocky), and on this rock foundation (petra), I will build my Community.” On what foundation is the community of Christ founded? Not on the man Peter or on any particular human being, but on the process of revelation in a human being—on the unveiling that takes place, not in a book or in an institution, but in a human being.
In you, in me, either the unveiling of our heart takes place to see and to communicate with the living God in Christ, or it does not. What matters is not information, but formation: One must be formed by Christ’s word, and respond with a quiet openness that allows the unknown God to pull back the veil covering the human heart from divine reality. When the unveiling occurs, then one enters into “the Kingdom of God,” that is, then one lives in God and for God. And that is a real spiritual revolution.
Perhaps to save time during our divine liturgies (Mass), the readings selected for our hearing are often highly abbreviated, often neglecting their original context. As heard at Mass, these readings have some meaning, and some spiritual value for the person who is attentive and thinks about what was proclaimed. It would be far better if our parishioners were accustomed to reading the entire passage from which the abbreviated reading was drawn, but rarely have I heard of anyone making the effort. Still, I recommend the practice: read the excerpted passage in context.
The story of Elijah on Mount Horeb, which we hear read at Mass this week-end (the first reading appointed for the 19th Sunday of ordinary time, Year A) is so truncated that much of the intended meaning and significance is lost. On the other hand, the few sentences which we hear read are rich in meaning, for one who makes the effort to understand them and apply them to his or her own spiritual life. Again, I must wonder: How many of our parishioners make this kind of effort? In truth, I do not know, but few usually admit to “hearing the word” in what was read or proclaimed. If we are not attentive to the stirring of the silent Word, how do we tune in to God?
The excerpt is from chapter 19 of I Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures, and is part of the Elijah cycle which has been preserved for many centuries. Although chapter 19 does not stand alone, at least if one reads it closely, one should gain insights into what the anonymous author of the text is trying to communicate to his readers. Indeed, without reading the chapter in the original Hebrew, but in several respectable English translations, much comes across: chapter 19 of I Kings is, among other things, a profound insight into healthy spirituality. At the same time, it eclipses and surpasses the kinds of interpretations that one can receive from the stories of Moses on Mount Sinai. (Note: Sinai and Horeb are the same mountain, as named differently by the two Israelite kingdoms). Or in other words, the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb tells us what is especially significant in the Book of Exodus’ account of Moses on Mount Sinai. In reading the story of the Exodus, it is easy to become fascinated by the spectacular, and miss the “sound of silence,” the darkness and quiet in which God communicates Himself to Moses. It is precisely this kind of communion with the unknown God that comes to the fore in the story of Elijah on Horeb.
The prophet Elijah bears his name meaning “Yahweh is my God.” Elijah is the true successor to Moses—not the kings of Israel and Judah, and not various religious voices and practices that led the Chosen People into worship of false gods. What is at stake is the truth of God and the truth of human existence under and in God. The people have been led astray, deceived by the failed institutions of kingship and priesthood. The prophet Elijah becomes the one place where God breaks in and acts decisively—not a Temple or a king, however exalted. Elijah fled to Horeb, driven by his fear of death as threatened by Queen Jezebel; out of fear Elijah loses sight of his vocation as prophet. So in fear Elijah fled into the wilderness—away from political and priestly institutions—and sat to rest under a broom bush—a reference back to the bush out of which God addressed Moses in “the burning bush.” But now the angel of the LORD sends Elijah on a 40-day journey up to “the Mountain of God,” Horeb / Sinai.
On Mount Sinai / Horeb, Elijah hears the word of the LORD addressing him with the penetrating question:`Why are you here, Elijah?’” The fleeing prophet responds: “I am moved by zeal for Yahweh, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” “Come out,” Yahweh called, “and stand on the mountain before YHWH.” And then “the LORD passed by,” with mighty wind, earthquake, and fire, but Yahweh was in none of these. “And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound [or, a still, small voice]. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantel about his face and went and stood at the entrance of the cave” (I Kgs 19, New JPS translation).