In my spiritual conversations with people, I would sometimes hear views that he or she is losing faith in God. Often I pose this question: Are you losing your faith in God or in your images of God?
This Sunday’s Gospel dramatizes the same dilemma: “Who do people say that I am?” And no one gives the right answer. Then Christ shifts the question: “But who do you say that I am?”—to which Peter responds correctly, “You are the Christ.”
This drives home the point that what matters is our personal relationship with Christ and not what others say, not what our images of Christ are, but who Christ is to us in a deeply personal way.
This is the first key breakthrough. As trite as it may sound, Jesus is our personal Lord and Savior, my personal Lord and Savior.
When Peter recognizes who Jesus is—the first time the title, the Christ, is used in the Gospel of Mark—Peter did not fully understand who Christ is despite this breakthrough moment.
Peter’s thinking and understanding showed he was a citizen of his time and place. His experience and context understood or misunderstood the Christ, the Messiah as one who would come and unite the people of Israel and lead it to a golden age. Thus Peter “rebukes” Christ for the unthinkable, silly prediction of his passion.
Peter then gets the key lesson in discipleship: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Here it is good to remember John the Baptist, who was the first to be blessed with this moment of recognition of the Lamb of God. In a latter conversation, John 3: 29-30, John gives us a helpful tip to better appreciate and understand the Lamb of God: “So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.”
Ignatius of Loyola, a man way ahead of his time in understanding human nature and dynamics, placed a premium on self-awareness and self-acceptance. This is the beginning of one’s spiritual formation journey.
Self-awareness itself poses many challenges: realizing the truth of who we are, our blessings and talents, but also our brokenness and wounded-ness, our trespasses and shadows. We struggle and make a breakthrough towards a realistic knowledge of self, a balanced sense of self-awareness.
The greater challenge, though, is to go further and deeper into self-acceptance. Being self-aware is the first step in the journey towards spiritual freedom, but it can also be one of the most insidious pitfalls. We can get stuck in awareness without accepting.
In my early years in the seminary, I was part of what we then called the T-group, the therapy group, in which one would share what one became aware of through the various activities and processes of the seminar. There was a lead facilitator, but all of us in the group could ask questions to help the person in the hot seat understand himself better.
Each person goes through a breakthrough that can be a quiet, tranquil moment or a raucously dramatic, turbulent one. Whether quiet or otherwise, the final experience of the process is acceptance marked by peace. It is an acceptance that leads to healing and reintegration.
In these moments of breakthrough or paradigm shift lie the deepest struggle. For example, a person wounded by his parents would, at one instance, strongly express the pain inflicted by the parents and in the same breath rationalize that they did it for his own good.
This struggle goes on and on, depending on the depth of the issues, and thus the fear of acceptance which is very much colored by our held biases.
The biases distort the ability to accept. The mind can rationalize and the heart can easily “forgive” because of biases and lenses—masks that, as Parker Palmer puts it, we hold on to, use or wear.
But the paradigm shift is needed. Christ says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
This becomes more powerful and hits home when we realize what Christ is saying is what he himself went through. He alone is our guarantee.
Our struggle was also Christ’s struggle. His Agony in the Garden was his breakthrough moment. When he becomes fully aware of who he is and what his mission entailed, he prays and begs, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.” (Luke 22: 41b-42a)
Then the moment of breakthrough, the acceptance and the freedom to offer and commit: “Still, not my will but your will be done.” (Luke 22: 42b)
We often describe an important and difficult process as “madugo,” bloody, to emphasize the challenges, the difficulties, the struggles inherent in it. The image that comes to mind is a bloody, violent yet cleansing battle, some sort of showdown or Armageddon-type of moment.
Yes, this is an apt image of madugo, but there is another image—deeper, more spiritual and nearer the core. I think this is what the Agony in the Garden is, madugo: “And to strengthen him, an angel from heaven appeared to him. He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” (Luke 22: 43-44)
“But who do you say that I am?” This is the question in our journey that all of us will encounter. Sometimes we will pretend to be deaf, consciously or unconsciously, and not hear it. Sometimes we hear it, but still our biases, our traumas, our own stories hold us back from not just responding, but more so from understanding our answer.
“You are the Christ.” You are my Christ who first heard who you are and why you were sent into the world in your baptism; an awareness of identity and mission you nurtured and understood more deeply; an identity and mission you struggled with in the garden; an identity and mission you brought to completion on the Cross and in the Resurrection where we see ever so clearly that you are the Beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased.
You are my Christ because in your story I discover my story. And this gives me hope.