“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’” (Matthew 16:15)
August 24, 2014
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
Faces stick with me; names not so much. But I try mightily to remember the illusive identities that match the familiar faces of the hundreds with whom I serve at the hospital. The fact that all of us wear hospital-issued photo I.D. badges helps, but even then, when in conversation with a colleague, my eyes are sometimes caught straying from eyeball contact in a desperate search for the name badge. Should the badge be clipped somewhere on the upper body, I’m often successful in my search for an identity. But there are those other more illusive staff members who clip their badges onto their belts. After some early straying of my eyes in unseemly and unsuccessful attempts to read these, I gave up ever knowing the names of these characters.
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While my attempts at name recognition have mostly met with appreciation and solicitude, I faced a singular challenge a few years back when three young women gleefully tested my patience and my sanity. These three—Dana, Dara & Dena—all worked side by side as clerks in the Emergency Department. I could count on facing at least two of them on a given day, and sometimes all three together. Knowing that I was struggling to remember their names, and likewise knowing that confusion was inevitable, they toyed with me at every opportunity. Mistaking their identity one more time, Dana would roll her huge eyes in exasperation as Dara uttered a semi-foul exclamation and Dena lamented for the thousandth time, “O Father, when are you ever going to get it right!”
Well, it took me a while, but I proudly boast that I did finally get it right. And even when, mimicking the game of seashells with a dried pea hidden beneath one, they quickly exchange seats and ask me again to name them, I can do it. Yes, I know these three: Dana, Dara & Dena.
Recognition: it’s the theme of the gospel passage we hear today. Walking along with his disciples while engaged in conversation, Jesus asks them what people are saying about him, about who they think he is. Recounting what they’ve heard among the crowds, all misidentifications, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’” (Matthew 16:15) And, of course, it’s Peter who confessed that Jesus was, indeed, the Christ, the son of the living God.
Even though Peter provided the answer Jesus sought at that particular moment in history, yet the question remains timeless, having taken on a life all its own. That is, Jesus is asking us this day what he has been asking every Christian down through the ages, “Who do YOU say that I am?” And the question is not put to us just once but often, and especially when we are tempted to misidentify God, when we are tempted to create a God more like ourselves, less like the Christ of the gospels.
How often humankind has been guilty of the attempted misappropriation of God, claiming God to be a fan of this sports team against another, or asserting God’s favor for one religious sect over another. Indeed, it would not be a ridiculous stretch of the truth to say that there are not a few who are convinced that God is Roman Catholic—and a Notre Dame football fan to boot!
A rare gift given me has been the experience of thirty-some years of ministry as part of an interfaith team of hospital chaplains. In sharing prayer and reflection with them, I’ve come to see the face of God in non-Catholic Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. Indeed, I’ve come to believe firmly that God is bigger than any particular system of belief, and these days, should people ask me who I am, I’d say I am Catholic—and then some. Meaning that Catholicism has become a springboard for dialogue with those whose religious beliefs are different from mine. And further, this process of dialogue has led me to appreciate my Catholic faith even more. Yes, I’m clearly Catholic with an eye out for what’s over the horizon.
Should Jesus ask me today “Who do you say that I am?” I’d confess just like Peter did, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Then I can imagine Jesus winking at me and, with a crooked smile, asking further, “But didn’t you learn something about me from Dana, Dara & Dena, the three young women I put in your pathway? I meant for you to meet them, you know.”
Confused, I’d ask Jesus what he meant. He might reply, “Remember how hard it was for you to distinguish one of them from the other, how, though their names were so similar, yet they were unique in personality? Remember their response when, once again, you misidentified them? How Dana rolled her eyes in exasperation, how Dara muttered a curse under her breath, how Dena said—‘O Father, when are you ever going to get it right!’ Do you remember?”
I did remember as I imagined Jesus continuing, “Here’s the thing: My chosen earthly home is in the heart of humanity. In each individual human heart, I mean. I live in Dana, in Dara and in Dena. Each of them is my chosen embodiment. But as they’re such unique persons, you’ll see a different aspect of me in each of them. They’re different, that’s for sure—but they’re all revelations of me.”
When my misted reverie with Jesus had faded away, it occurred to me that if God has made his chosen home within humanity, within every human person, then God surely dwells in the hearts of non-Catholic Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists also. Indeed, something of the face of God is waiting to be revealed within every true believer in the common Creator of us all.