This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. - John 1:19-28
Among the first things a baby learns to say beyond "Mama," "Dada," and "No" is often the word "Me." It becomes a very important word even if not used in the grammatically correct way. "Me" is key to identity, like "I" as a personal identifier. It's all wrapped up in our makeup and how we see ourselves. Freud had lots to say about identities, but we don't need to do a rehash of the Freudian psychological profiles right now
As we grow older we began to identify ourselves in a number of different ways. Beyond learning to respond to our name, we learn that we are the child of our parents, what our address is, what grade and school we attend, and so on. As we grow up we learn to identify ourselves in terms of new relationships: we are someone's husband or wife, mother or father, someone's friend, or acquaintance. We also identify ourselves by what we do: CEOs, secretaries, nurses, professional people, auto mechanics, and all shades of the spectrum of employment that earns our livelihood. We identify ourselves by our social standing, whether we are members of this country club or some organization. We also tend to identify ourselves by our economic standing in the community: we live in this gated community, or drive that particular make of car. Our children go to expensive colleges and universities, and we brag about how much we paid (or got a great deal on) our house or our boat or some other possession. All in all we're conglomerations of identifications. Sometimes it's a wonder we know ourselves at all.
John the Baptist was asked "Who are you?" by groups of religionists and hierarchs of the Temple. They wanted to know because they were curious as to whether he was the one that was promised. He answered them that no, he wasn't. They kept asking, was he Elijah? Was he this person or that person? His answer was still no. John's job was to be the forerunner of the coming Messiah. He had possibly known of this since childhood, or maybe not, but at this stage in his life he was very clear in his understanding of just who he was. He was a prophet, and that was that.
Each one of us has to learn to be precise in our identification of ourselves. It is easy to describe ourselves by what do, or what we earn, or to whom we are related. But to really answer the question "Who are you?", that takes a little more doing.
To learn who we are requires a lot of soul-searching and a lot of thought. Are we a member of this or that profession, organization, family, or church? Is that all we are, or is that all we see ourselves as being? What about our abilities? How do we use them to describe who we are? Are we successes or failures or something in between? What is it that makes us individual, different from everyone else even if we are similar in many ways. We are who we are, and one of the steps to maturity and wisdom is knowing that and accepting it or, if it can't be accepted, then changing it.
We all say that we are children of God. That is part of our identification, part of what makes us Christian. Some will identify as Christian first and members of some denominations second, or others will introduce themselves as a member of the denomination and expect people to know that they were Christian. It's a puzzle that needs to be well thought out.
Christmas is a time when we think about the birth of Jesus, a baby who, like all babies, had to learn to say mama, dada, etc. He wouldn't have truly been a human being had he suddenly appeared from Mary's womb speaking perfectly correct 16th-century Shakespearean English. He had to go through learning process in order to be human; he already knew what it was like to be God. Now he had to learn to be human even though he was still God, just clothed in human flesh.
Jesus had to learn who he was so that if someone asked him, he could answer an answer correctly. Possibly learning he was the son of God came to him early on in life, but perhaps it is also a slow learning process where he found that as a child he enjoyed hearing Scripture and learning them and then talking with the rabbis about the meanings of those scriptures. He must have caught on pretty quickly, but he had to go through a learning process. He knew who he was.
So how do we answer "Who are you?"
We, like John and Jesus, need to know who we are. We need to take time to stop and think about it, look at the various ways that we use to identify ourselves, and then see where we may be cutting ourselves short or maybe giving ourselves too much credit.
Most of all, we need to learn who we are in terms of our relationship to God. It's probably one of the most important identifications we can claim - or aspire to. Once we figure that out, we have an answer to "Who are you?"
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturrday, January 2, 2015.