Who do people say the Son of Man is? There are a lot of opinions out there about who Jesus is. Some say he’s like a 1970s hippy who never judges; some say he’s a fanatic who always judges. Some say he’s an inspirational teacher like Ghandi preaching peace; some say he’s the reason why there are religious wars. And that’s all very odd—because even when Jesus expels demons, even they say that Jesus is the Son of God. But for men-- strangely, men do not know.
For me the question itself is odd, because when I look at other major religions and their founders—whether Buddha, Confucius, or Mohammed—they point away from themselves. Jesus, on the other hand, points to himself and makes a claim: that unlike the other teachers, He is God and the people out there aren’t just his students—they are his children. Thus, when Jesus asks the apostles this question, it is because he is orienting them outward: there are people out there who do not know Him and He wants them back.
But then Jesus makes it personal. He asks the apostles—those very same ones who are going to go out—He asks them: “what about you? Who do you say that I am? It’s so easy to be anxious about the world, but what about you, my apostles? If you don’t know who I am, you who are closest to me, then how are you going to bring back the other people?” So, Jesus makes the apostles vulnerable. “Who do you say that I am?”
This is a question about Jesus' identity. But it is also a question that is inviting the apostles to discover the source of their dignity-- and, by doing so, to discover that they have a higher dignity than they ever-before thought. We can put it this way:: if Jesus is the Christ, the King of the Universe and the God of all, then what does this make Peter and the apostles who have been brought into the King’s innermost court?
I think of the Chronicles of Narnia: Peter and Edmund and Susan and Lucy are just children, but when they meet Aslan—a Jesus-figure portrayed by a lion—they are changed. They are given gifts; they discover their talents; they become battle-tested; and, in time, they are raised to thrones and are crowned kings and queens. They are raised beyond that which they ever thought themselves capable of becoming. And, because of this, they cannot be like everyone else. Being like everyone else no longer corresponds with the new definition of their life and of their new dignity.
Thus, today’s Gospel isn’t firstly a moral exhortation—it is firstly an invitation to rediscover what defines our identity. Hence Jesus asks us: “Who do you say that I am? Who or what defines your life? Have you allowed me to raise your dignity? Do you believe that I am the one who can do that for you?”
In the moments after you were baptized, the priest anointed you with the oil of Sacred Chrism—Chrism, which shares the same Greek word as Christ or, in Hebrew, Messiah, meaning “anointed.” When you were anointed at your baptism, the priest said the following words: “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation." And then he says this next and very important line: "As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.”
What does this mean? It means that at your baptism, Jesus gave you a share in the kingly anointing. He elevated our dignity beyond that which the world could give. It means that we wear a crown and can walk in the dignity that being so crowned provides. Kings so crowned hold up their heads and their actions because their dignity comes from God. Kings so crowned don’t search for other things to define them (even less do they play in the muck) because kings so crowned have a higher dignity than the world can give-- or take away!
This weekend, we celebrate Louis IX, King of France and Saint of Holy Mother Church. Not only was he a king by worldly constitution, he was firstly a king so constituted by baptism—and he considered the crown he received at baptism to be of more value than the crown received by men. Because his kingly rule was defined by his Christian dignity and not by the trappings of the world, St. Louis’ reign was different than other kings. He tried to reign as Christ the King reigned.
So, like Christ the King, St. Louis was generous to the poor and a suffering servant, choosing penances over comforts so as to sanctify the souls of his people while filling their stomachs with his bread. Like Christ the King, St. Louis governed with justice and mercy, seeking to rule in accordance with the laws of God so as to uphold the dignity of the human person. And like Christ the King, St. Louis battled against the powers of darkness and evil: St. Louis would lead Crusades against barbarians that were creating havoc in the Middle East and threatening to bust through the gates of Europe. (As an aside, in our day and age with the rise of ISIS, and seeing how quickly certain worldviews can devolve into barbarianism, the “embarrassment” of the Crusades suddenly doesn’t seem so embarrassing nor so morally far-fetched anymore. Truly, if Europe and the rest of the world is to be saved from the powers of darkness, another Crusade is going to have to be waged-- and it is going to have to be fought not simply with metal swords, but with spiritual ones as well).
So, Peter, who do people say that I am?
And will you lead them, Peter? Will you manifest my kingly power and presence to the world? Will you not only be generous and merciful, but will you stand up against evil and bear the sword of the spirit, the shield of faith, the armor of justice and the breastplate of salvation?
Who do you say that I am? Am I your king? Am I the God of this city and the Lord of this nation? Am I the one that defines your life?
I ask you because your dignity is tied up with mine. Only if I am your king will you then reign as king—dignified, true, just, generous, unafraid, ... and victorious.