I must admit that I feel a bit like either a deer in headlights or like the Starship Enterprise caught in a tractor beam of a Romulan warship in the face of what I find at this time to be the haunting yet captivating question of “Who are you?”
This question is posed on two occasions in today’s Gospel. One reason for this is because the last time I really took a significant chunk of time to sit with this question was back in 1998 during a formal discernment process in the Diocese of Atlanta.
Discernment processes aren’t necessarily tied to the church and, as an old friend and mentor told me at the time, a regular practice of discernment provides an opportunity for deeper reflection about fundamental questions of life and faith and call – sometimes to priesthood, or some form of greater service, or to one’s vocation and its sometimes varied manifestations throughout the journey of a single lifetime. And, just as I realized back in 1998, it’s pretty hard to figure out where you might want to go and what you might want to do if you don’t know who you are.
So, in the context of our Advent waiting and expectation, I would like us to spend some time sitting with this question that leads us back to square one if you will; this fundamental question of who we are, and more important, who are you in Christ? Another way to get at this might be to ask, “How are you in Christ?” or “How is Christ in you?” or, “How do you function as bearers of Christ’s standard while you wait?”
In this regard I find this passage from John most helpful first by noting John’s patient response. Note that it takes John a while to answer the question. I find this helpful because I think the question of who we are cuts to the core of our being and demands a degree of courage and integrity to emerge with an answer that has any chance of being consistent with our inner truth; an answer that we identify as truthful and resonant, regardless of how anyone outside of us engages it. What do I mean?
Here I am acknowledging how often we respond to probing questions like this, not from a place of integrity but from places of appeasement, pursuing the path of least resistance. In other words, rather than truly wrestle with and acknowledge that sometimes we have no idea what a complete answer to the question of “Who am I?” might be, and at best we may have a few scattered hints, we opt instead to frame and answer the question by rewording it like this: “Who do I think you want me to be?” or “Who do I think I should be?”
“Who are you?” is a question inviting each of us to get out of our heads and instead is an invitation to examine the core of our being, and engage the divine spark that lies within each of us.
Second, rooted in the knowledge of his true identity, John resists being placed in any of the range of boxes that his Pharisee questioners laid out for him. Many of us have firsthand experience of attempts by others to fit us into the neat boxes they think we should fit in to. John identifies himself as the one who went ahead to “testify to the light” and in response, the priests and Levites try to interpret what John was trying to communicate from the limits of their own understanding.
John keeps saying, “It’s not about me, it’s about one so much greater than me who is turning the world upside down and shining light to scatter darkness in our lives and world.” And in return, the priests and Levites need to reconcile the strange tidings of which John speaks with their known sources of authority. In effect, they say, we won’t accept as valid what you have to say until we identify the source of your validity. So are you Elijah? A prophet? Tell us on what grounds we should believe what you have to say?
But, as many of us have also experienced at some point or maybe at several points in our life so far, when we connect with the truth and power of who we are and who we are created to be, and know ourselves to be loveable, living, and dynamic beings, the fact that this identity may not make sense to anyone else, places a distant second to our ability to identify the rooted center of our being. In other words, we know that to live or be any other way than who we truly are, is a false choice equivalent to choosing not to have air to breathe.
Daring to answer the question “Who are you?” provides us with all the grounding and authority we need to claim all that we are and to know ourselves to be, especially when we discover who we are as expressions of Great Spirit.
Finally, John’s answer to the question of “Who are you?” reveals who he is in Christ. Said differently, his identity isn’t self-serving, but identifies him as one who serves something and someone way bigger than himself. John says, in effect, I’m merely the pre-game show – I’m a cheerleader if you will, sent to alert you to the fact that this thing, this one you are waiting for, is going to be awesome and so much more than you can even imagine.. John says, in effect, anything I do pales in comparison to the transformation you are about to undergo – if you are ready to receive it, if you are prepared. This is why, I think, we need an entire season to prepare. This is why we watch and wait.
The question “Who are you?’ enables us to prepare for the transformation that results when we meet Jesus – whether it be as a baby in a manger or on the road to Damascas, or in the eyes of a homeless person on the side of the street.
When we know who we are, we stop second guessing ourselves and act. We draw close to the things that our heads tell us to be afraid of but that the root of our being knows is exactly where we need to go.
My prayer this evening is that as we continue to watch and to wait, each of us finds the courage to stay in the headlights and to allow our wrestling with the question, “Who are you?” to reveal who Christ has already called us to be as agents of light and life and fresh air in our world.