Sunday, September 16, 2012

Who You Are

Homily, 24th Sunday Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

A friend of mine told me that he had dinner with a friend a few weeks ago, and that his friend brought along her roommate, a young woman who had recently graduated from college with a degree in nursing. Well, during the course of the evening, they talked, and it seemed that the young woman was very depressed. Apparently, her father had been telling her her whole life that she was overweight, and the men she knew in college were only interested in comparing her to the women they saw in the movies. And this was tearing her apart.

So he did what any good Southern gentleman and Christian would do, he told her not to let others judge her by her looks, that indeed she was very pretty. He praised her desire to be a nurse, because it was a beautiful thing to want to give of yourself in service to others, and he told her that no one had the right to treat her as an object, to harass her about her weight, or to hold her to impossible standards.

And you know what? It was the first time she had ever heard it. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us, with all the images we see in the media, but no one had ever told her those things before. My friend tells me that she lit up and went home seemingly renewed, just from his simple words of kindness. And reflecting on the experience, he wrote this to me: “why is it that I am so much more concerned with what’s happening in the life of this girl, a stranger to me, than I am concerned with my career or in getting what I want? [He goes on:] I know the answer: it’s Jesus, and the effect of putting Him above everything else. What’s happening in the life of this suffering stranger is, I’m surprised to say, of paramount importance to me.”

As he realized, it is of paramount importance that we know who Jesus is, Who do you say that I am?” Because if we do not know who he is, then we do not know ourselves, and we cannot know each other. Pope John Paul likes to quote the Second Vatican Council and say this: Jesus Christ “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” [for all quotes, cf. Redemptor hominis 8, Gaudium et spes 22]

Well, let’s take a look at what Jesus Christ reveals to us about ourselves and each other. The first thing that He reveals to us is our dignity as human persons. The catechism speaks of human dignity in this way: (CCC 357) “Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of the human person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession, and of freely giving himself and entering into a communion with other persons.”

Because of this great dignity, we have certain rights, which are inherent to our very nature as human persons created in God’s image and likeness: the right to life, work, truth, and self-determination. No one has the right to treat you as an object, to be used or abused for mere economic gain or selfish gratification, because God has made you “a little less than the angels” (Heb. 2:7) And no one has the right to judge you by your sex, skin color, weight, nationality, or abilities and disabilities, because when God looks at you, He sees His creation, and all of his works are good (Gen. 1:31).

In other words, no one has the right to treat as anything other than what you are: a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a member of the Body of Christ. And it is in Jesus Christ, the God-man, that we know this is true... He who is the Son of God became one of us! The Vatican Council would say this about his role: “human nature as He assumed it ... has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect... For by His Incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every human person. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.”

And that is the next important thing that Jesus Christ reveals about us: we are sinners. Perhaps like the young woman my friend met, we are sometimes “more sinned against than sinning”, but nevertheless, we are sinful and weak, and we cannot save ourselves.

Yes, we are created in God’s image and likeness, but our very nature has been wounded by sin, and we need to be healed from that sin. And that can only happen through Jesus Christ, for only he, being sinless, could pay the price for our sins, only He could fulfill the prophecy of Isiah, "I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard."

Again, the Vatican Council would say, “[Jesus] restores [in us] the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward.” And because we have received such a great gift, Redemption from our sins, then we now have certain obligations, certain duties: to respect life, to seek God's will and live our vocations, to seek the truth, to respect others, free of anger, fear, prejudice, or discrimination - avoiding those things incompatible with God’s design of the human heart (CCC 1935).

The final thing which Jesus wishes reveals to us is that if we follow in his steps, we will discover the true meaning of love. When Peter answered Jesus’ question and said, “[You are] the Messiah of God”, he had perhaps only a vague idea of what that meant, because Jesus felt the need to explain further, “The Son of Man must first endure many sufferings, be rejected..., and be put to death, and then be raised up on the third day.”

There are a lot of ideas out there today about what love is, most of them false, some of them partially true, but there is only one way in which you can truly come to know that fullness of love, and that is in knowing Jesus Christ. True love is a total gift of self, and Jesus Christ showed us the way by giving Himself completely for our sake on the Cross, and “no one has greater love than this...” (John 15:13)

The Vatican Council would say with St. Paul, “The Son of God ‘loved me and gave Himself up for me’ (Gal. 2:20). By suffering for us He not only provided us with an example for our imitation, He blazed a trail, and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning.”

Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” My friend denied what the world had to say to the young woman he met. He helped her, in some small way, to discover her true self, and he was only able to do so because he knew Jesus Christ. Only by denying our selves and looking to Him will we truly discover our selves.