Saturday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 478

Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole Body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the Body’s growth and builds itself up in love.

In this passage from his Epistle to the Ephesians, Saint Paul pushes his analogy of the Body of Christ into metaphor. He sees in the Church's structures of authority the tendons and ligaments of a human body. Christ's "body" is not an amorphous blob of flesh but a complex organism which can grow and build itself up in love because it has a variety of charismatic offices  -  prophets,  evangelists, pastors, teachers and so forth. 

Modern philosophers especially of the Baby Boom and later generations search for their identity. "Who am I?" we ask. "Am I who others say I am, or someone else?" 

The modern answer has been existential, "I am whatever I choose to make of myself!" This option has been encouraged by the American myth, "You can be anything you want to be!" We routinely expose our children to the stories of Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Barack Obama and countless senators and congresspersons who betook themselves from poverty to power. 

My favorite songs in that self-made mythology are Frank Sinatra's "I gotta be me!" and "I did it my way." 

Theologian John Zizioulas, the Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon, addresses this existential question with the resources of an ancient Christian tradition. He points to the mystery of the Holy Trinity as key to identifying oneself. We know the one God only as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There can be no Son without the Father, nor Father without the Son. The Holy Spirit is their love for one another and also a "person" with the equal rank and dignity of the Father and the Son. 

With that theological foundation, Father Zizioulas describes the Church as a hierarchical structure of persons who have been ordained first as baptized Christians within the communion of the Church. Among the baptized are bishops, presbyters and deacons. He recalls Saint Ignatius of Antioch teaching that the bishop images the Father to the Church, not lording it over them but caring for and serving each one. 

There are other ministries too, though not quite as permanent as that of the ordained: catechists, Eucharistic Ministers, choir, and so forth. 

In other words, I begin to answer the question of who I am by the "character" that was sacramentally given to me. I claim my identity as I take my place in the congregation, as I surrender to full and active participation in the communion. 

The Church also recognizes and honors the roles of husband and wife. They are assigned by one's sexual identity. Men may be husbands; and women, wives. Thus we recognize our own incarnate nature; these roles are dynamic and equal in dignity but not interchangeable. 

In Descartes' secular society, founded on his famous thought experiment, the cogito ("I think therefore I am.") one may become whatever one thinks one is. If my identity is rooted in my opinions or preferences it may flip around in any direction, now clinging to this idea, and then to that image. 

I read of one hapless young woman, feeling persecuted by her peers, complained, "I can't help it if I am goth!" Adrift in an infinity of choices and driven by the currents of fashion she was drowning in bathos

John Macmurray also explores the role of identity, showing how a person emerges from the infantile, animal level of existence in relationship to other persons. This can be a blessed journey as generous parents encourage and enable the child to grow to maturity, taking her place as a responsible adult. It can also be perilous if parents are missing or self-absorbed and the child must struggle to survive in her own house. In the latter case she may never attain personhood. 

That is why religion is so important. If the child learns to give and receive in an environment of mutual sharing and common sacrifice -- even in poverty where resources are scarce -- she may become the adult who is prepared to usher another generation into personhood. 

Saint Paul's vision of Church as the Body of Christ still challenges and invites us to find our identity in Christ and his Church. Within this communion we take our place before God's Throne and sing God's praises. 

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

You're welcome to add a thought or raise a question.