Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself? [pause] Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself? What are you then? [pause]
These are fundamental questions, which is to say this are existential questions, which is to say these are threatening questions. They question our identity. They challenge us to justify our existence. They are threatening when we ask them of ourselves ("who am I?"). They are threatening when put to us by others. Today, in the Gospel, John the Baptizer gets questioned on this basic level. Some priests and Levites first interrogate him, and then some Pharisees question him.
First of all, John knows who he is not. They ask him, "Are you Elijah?" "I am not". "Are you the prophet?" "NO!" John also admits, "I am NOT the Christ." John has no messiah complex. He suffers from no overblown opinion of himself. No delusions of grandeur in this one. He is down to earth. He is very real.
When they question him further, John goes deeper. He quotes the prophet Isaiah: I am "the voice of one crying out in the desert, Make straight the way of the Lord!" In quoting the prophet Isaiah, John situates himself in a tradition; in a living community. John has roots, in other words. His identity comes from his connection with God's people. John is not some free-floating, independent agent that does not connect to other people. John knows where he belongs - he is part of God's people.
The Pharisees continue to interrogate John. They press for the core of his identity. "Why then do you baptize?" they ask with growing frustration. John goes to the core of his identity: "I baptize with water, but there is one among you whom you do not recognize - the one who is coming after me - whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie."
Now this is a strange answer. But notice what John does. When it comes to the question of the core of John's identity, the rock upon which his sense of self is based, John stops talking about himself, and starts talking about Jesus. John finds his identity in relationship to Jesus Christ. And based on this firm rock, John knows firmly who he is. He has no doubts about himself. Thus, he is empowered for his mission as witness to the light. John testifies to the light. That is who John is. //PAUSE//
This Gospel puts to us the same questions that were put to John: "Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself?" "Why do you work and breathe and love and bother to get up in the morning?" "Who are you Hmmmm.
There are many ways we could answer: man or woman, gay or straight, adult or child, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, Longhorn or Aggie fan, chocolate or vanilla, and on and on. But our most profound identity here, what draws us together for this celebration, is our identity as Christians, as Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. That identity runs deeper than any of the others. We identify ourselves in relation to Jesus Christ.
Like John we do not find our identity in a totally self-sufficient way in ourselves, so that we do not need anyone else. Because if we define ourselves totally in terms of our own self, then there is, frankly, not a great deal there. If we are the measure of everything, then the measurement – compared to the universe – is mighty picayune. If our purpose is no bigger than the little thing of our particular, individual self, then our being is pathetically modest indeed.
But if , like John the Baptist, we find our identity in relationship to Jesus Christ; if we discover our identity in our need for a Savior, then our identity, our purpose, our meaning, is much, much greater.
The operative question then is not, “Who am I?” but rather “Whose am I?”
To Whom do I belong, to whom do I give my life, for whom do I live, for whom do I bother to get up each morning and keep going and slug it out another day?
¿ Who am I? Many things: priest, Paulist, pastor, American, chocolate lover, and so on, but at the core I am called to be a Disciple of Christ. That is my identity. That is your identity.
And what a wonderful identity it is! St. Peter, speaking to the Baptized, tells us who we are: You are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” [1 Pet 2:9] That is who we are!
It matters little if we are famous or unknown, if we are applauded or ignored. What matters is Whose we are, that we are disciples of the Lord Jesus.
Like with John the Baptizer, this relationship with Jesus gives us our identity. It must be expressed in mission, must be lived out in service to others. That is the only way it becomes real. By our Baptism we have been joined to Christ. We are members of His Body. We are His way of continuing to act and speak and be present in this world. By continuing to do His mission, to live His faithfulness and love, we come to discover who we most truly are. [pause]
Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself?