Opening the Word: The identity of Christ

“Who do the crowds say that I am?” asked Jesus, questioning his disciples. Then, moments later: “But who do you say that I am?”

Those are obviously questions about identity. But they are not just about the identity of Jesus; they are also about the identity of the disciples standing with him on that particular day. Those who are disciples of Jesus Christ are identified and known by their relationship with a specific man making unique claims about himself, his relationship with God and his mission. If you claim to be the disciple of someone, you embrace, in some significant way, the identity of that person. And you claim a relationship and a right by which you will be known and judged.

In addition, the mission and work of a teacher or leader can only be understood and truly grasped by knowing the one being followed. Jesus first wanted the disciples to know who he was. Then, once St. Peter, the leader of the disciples, had answered, “The Christ of God,” Jesus clearly described what he was going to do: suffer, be rejected by the religious leaders, killed, and “on the third day be raised.” In Matthew’s more detailed account of this important conversation, Peter is first identified as the rock upon which Jesus promised to build his Church (Mt 16:17-19). He is then shown to be the impulsive, thickheaded disciple who rebuked Jesus for explaining his sacrificial mission: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Having articulated the identity of Jesus, Peter failed to accept Jesus’ mission and was harshly reprimanded for it. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said to the head apostle, “You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:22-23).

The side of God is found on the side of a cross. The cross, the door of death, is the way to life and resurrection. The mystics have expressed this truth in many wonderful ways. “If you rightly bear your cross,” wrote Thomas à Kempis, “it will bear you.” St. John of the Cross stated: “He that seeks not the cross of Christ seeks not the glory of Christ.” And G.K. Chesterton, who I think was indeed a mystic, quipped, “It is true, and even tautological, to say that the Cross is the crux of the matter.”

Zechariah, in a powerful passage of messianic prophecy, looked toward a time when God would pour out “a spirit of grace and petition” on his people, those who would “look on him whom they have pierced.” The passage brings to mind the glories of Pentecost and first baptisms performed by Peter and the other disciples: “On that day there shall be open to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.” That fountain is baptism, by which, St. Paul writes, “you are all children of God in Christ Jesus,” for everyone who has been “baptized into Christ” has been clothed with Christ. In the early Church, this supernatural “clothing” was represented by adults wearing white baptismal garments after receiving the sacrament (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1243). Those who are baptized into Christ Jesus, St. Paul told the Romans, have been baptized into his death (see Rom 6:4).

Thus, those who are baptized have a new identity. They are children of God and are “in Christ,” having been “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,” who guarantees that they are heirs (Eph 1:13-14). What is the inheritance? Eternal life, certainly, but also familial life. It is intimate and perfect communion with our merciful Father. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.