Year B Ordinary 2
The Catholic novelist Walker Percy writes that one of of the ironies of being a human being is, “A stranger approaching you in the street will in a second’s glance see you whole, size you up, place you in a way in which you cannot and never will, even though you have spent a lifetime with yourself, live in the Century of the Self, and therefore ought to know yourself best of all.”
That irony is so true and we in St. Louis know it very well, which is why every single one of us immediately asks of each other which high-school you went to. It’s funny, when people ask me that and I say, “St Charles West, class of ’99!” the response is always to get a funny look in their eyes and say, “oh, well, I guess I could be friends with you, a public school graduate.” I’m just a poor public school kid, so that apparently says a lot about me. I never got the chance to go to SLU High and learn to tie a bow tie or go to St. Mary’s and hope I could be mayor of St. Louis some day, but at least that’s better than those of you who went to school somewhere other than St. Louis, because you’ll never quite be one of us (one of us!), which is why you get that strange look when you tell people, “Oh I went to high school in Florida.” It kind of means you’re an outsider who is kind of untrustworthy. Sorry.
I really do find the question fascinating because it’s a way of making connections and sorting out questions of identity. We’re often shaped by our backgrounds in ways that we don’t even realize ourselves. The judgments of others, while certainly full of error especially if you base it off something as goofy as high-school attendance, those judgments can reveal insights to us about our own selves that we aren’t actually aware of.
Walker Percy asks, “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?”
As a society, we know how to make a nuclear bomb, how to make a machine that flies through the sky, we can walk on the moon, and yet we often make fundamental errors about our very own behavior and motivations. The shocking truth is that we even though we have so much knowledge, we know less than ever before about our selves and how to be happy.
I do think that these issues are more extreme today because of how much pressure there is to find identity in earning potential, material possessions, and how much advertising can distort our sense of personal value. But the problem of self-identity has been around for a long time.
St. Augustine says, “We are restless Lord, until we rest in thee.” He then confesses how his playboy lifestyle kept him not only from knowing God but also from knowing himself. He was partying and dating and seeking fame, but in the end he lost his own self identity and felt more and more restless. Finally, when he was in his mid-30s, he figures it out, writing, Late have I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new…thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there.” But in the end, he discovers, God and fulfillment and self-knowledge cannot be found out there. We can only know ourselves by taking a hard look within, because it is in the human heart that God first speaks to us. And this is the secret to knowing yourself – God knows you better, far better, than you know yourself.
Perhaps you think that you are insignificant. God knows you are not. Maybe you think you are merely average, or unimportant, or unlovely. God knows that you are none of these. God looks at you and he sees a soul that he has created, that he has knit together in your mother’s womb, that you have a soul that is made for eternity and you are infinitely valuable. You are a person worth dying for.
CS Lewis tells a story in which he imagines a new arrival first experiencing heaven. In it he sees a beautiful woman whose robes are majestic. She walks through heaven, followed by a long train of immense beings bearing flowers and dancing, of youths and maidens singing, and of dogs and cats and birds and horses.
The newcomer is amazed: It’s Mary, the Mother of God!
“Not at all,” says his guide, “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
The newcomer is confused. “She seems to be . . . a person of particular importance.”
Nope, it’s Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.
But she is great. The guide explains “Every young man or boy that met her became her son—even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter. Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves.”
In her they became themselves—that is an astonishing claim. Such is the elevating power of the love of Christ.
Through the love that we have for each other, through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, through our baptismal identity as children of God – we become ourselves.
Our Lord calls Simon and give him a new name – Peter. He calls Samuel to his true vocation and stays with him always. St. Paul is clear, we are united with the Christ, one spirit with him. He is as close to us as we are to ourselves, and he knows us through and through.
In the world, human identity is muddled and confused. In Christ, we become ourselves. We no longer need to compare ourselves to others or fear for the future. You are chosen. You are treasured. You are forgiven. You are loved beyond all compare.