Readings: Zechariah 12:10-11; 13:1; Galatians 3:26-29; Luke 9:18-24
In recent decades the Social Sciences have been re-examining so-called gender roles that society and culture assigns to girls, boys, men and women and which, not infrequently, dictate–or at least influence–what a person can or cannot do. And whereas some have insisted on a fundamental equality in all things between the sexes, less radical perspectives have, instead, focused on uncovering those assumed differences and inequalities that are erroneous and have unfairly and unjustly limited the range of possibilities in a wide range of human endeavors.
Similarly, the last sixty years have witnessed numerous attempts at uncovering and eradicating unfair discrimination related to ethnicity, culture, religious affiliation and those labeled physically or mentally challenged. And while all of these efforts are not only laudable but imperative, they can inadvertently obscure the essence of what it means to be both human and a person. And I say this because efforts to remove unfair and unjust restrictions on certain behaviors and endeavors based on gender, race, religion, physical or mental abilities–or lack thereof–can reinforce the common notion that we are primarily, if not exclusively, defined by what we do; or expressed slightly differently, we are what we do, rather than we do what we are.
In trying to uncover, as it were, our true identity, Saint Paul’s words in our Second Reading don’t initially seem to help maters with their apparent nullification of some of the key distinctions whereby we assert our individuality. For Paul insists that all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ, and thus there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male or female; for you are all one Christ Jesus. What are we to make of this claim? It certainly does seem to suggest our absorption into something that not only transcends us–namely Christ–but something that also overwhelms us and extinguishes all that makes us unique and individual. In attempting a deeper understanding of what St. Paul is asserting we need to recall the point I made a moment ago in distinguishing between what we do and what we are.
As I suggested, our contemporary society tends to judge and define a person largely in terms of what they do, what they have accomplished, their talents, gifts and abilities. Accordingly, some are deemed more successful, more attractive, of greater value in terms of what they do, while others–judged by the same criteria–are dismissed as failures, unattractive and of little value or worth. However, somewhat counter-intuitively, the theologian, Michael Downey posits that, looking to those people we are inclined to overlook may throw light on who and what a human person is. And he goes on to say that the wounded and the weak, the littlest and least, and least in church and society can be instructive in what it means to be human by drawing attention to forgotten and marginalized dimensions of ourselves.
Supporting this insight are the experiences of many who have worked with the terminally ill and dying as they interact with persons whose once manifold abilities and talents have now narrowed down to the heroic struggle to draw the next breath or simply swallow. And it is at these moments when the dying person is stripped of all his or her abilities, talents and gifts, that something still more wonderful and profound can emerge as we are enabled to encounter–as it were–the essence of the person with the various and more external wrappings removed. It is the same essence that we encounter less obviously and dramatically whenever we truly love another person–we love the indescribable essence of that person and not their more external and peripheral attitudes–important and wonderful as these may be.
And what is revealed in this encounter with the essence of another person is the fact that, as Michael Downey reminds us, the chief characteristic of the human person is to be open to relationship with others, and to be constantly open to the Gift which binds us together in a common love. For, because our God is a Trinity, our very being as creatures in the image and likeness of our Creator, is defined by relationship. This, then, is what it means to be a person; this is the fundamental “doing” that defines who we are and not the myriad other things that we do and which we think define the people we are. And so too in the Gospel when Jesus inquires as to who the crowds say that he is, as long as they describe his more external similarities and actions and compare him to earlier prophets they fail to grasp his true identity. And it is only when Peter describes Jesus essentially in terms of relationship–the Christ of God, that is, Christ in relationship to his Father–that they finally encounter the true identity of their Lord and Master.
However, the truth that we are in our essence beings oriented towards relationship doesn’t mean that our various more external human attributes, talents, gifts and abilities need to be suppressed or eradicated as we are clothed with Christ. But it does mean that these should be engaged in the service of relationship–both with God and with one another. For then these more exterior qualities become expressions and manifestations of what is most interior and true. And when our more external attributes, talents, gifts and abilities assist this movement to ever deeper relationship with God and one another, and their potential to divide and separate us recedes, then to our surprise we find that there truly is no longer Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free person, nor male and female; for we are all one Christ Jesus.