It gives me pause to hear people say they “identify” as Christian, or see questionnaires and forms asking people to check if they identify with a particular religion or none.
To identify as a Christian implies that this is a totally individual act and choice, self-determination expressed through the language of a particular belief system.
But to become a Christian, one always needs a sponsor (godparent). Where we see an exception was in the early church, when a person in a situation of immediate martyrdom could, at that moment, choose to be a Christian alone, without a sponsor.
We are perplexed these days about who we are, where we are going and whether we will survive as a planet.
No wonder there’s a desire to hear and respect the identities people claim, and try to invent new ways of being, in our eagerness to avert disaster. It’s natural, too, for Christians to pick up the language of our era and use it in expressing the faith.
But how do the words we use shape meaning and, yes, identity? Language is as transient and changeable as the humans who use it. And language is powerful, affecting how we perceive and live.
Whether we identify as Christian or as anti-choice, in picking up language we pick up its power, without necessarily knowing how to wield it wisely. How does this change us?
The power of the word is foundational to all religions that have sacred scriptures and is at the heart of Christianity. Judeo-Christian tradition cherishes words, written and spoken, recognizing that the word carries a power like no other.
From the earliest days, Christians spoke of the Word (“Logos”) of God becoming flesh and dwelling among humans, so that humans might dwell with God.
How do we receive the language, or languages, of our time? How do we meet today’s words with the silent eternal language of the Word who we have received and been asked to carry?
The Second Vatican Council described itself as listening to the signs of the times and called on the church to continue to listen, recognizing that God’s eternal truth comes to us in a limited historical context.
You might say our two ears have to be cocked in different directions, one toward the infinite and the other toward the finite, a task both joyful and agonizing. Our faith makes it possible to hold this tension by giving us the one Christ.
That’s the tension in which we dwell. Without the Spirit, the letter kills (2 Cor 3:6), yet it’s necessary that the Spirit be carried by the letter, so that not an iota is lost (Mt 5:18).
How do we hold the truth for the next generation, as it was held and passed on to us? Words alone are not enough, yet words — the least-false words possible — are needed to help us in our living and dying (in the truth).
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the most brilliant theologians who ever wrote, delivered some of his greatest words in the most profound obscurity.
His writings on the Trinity were dismissed by many as heretical. He preached the sermons that became dogma to barely more than a dozen people in a small chapel. To write and share those words cost him.
Could we, all these centuries later, have received the witness and guidance of great teachers of the Trinity like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a doctor of the church, without the painstaking study and witness of Gregory?
Could we understand our life of sharing with God and sharing with one another in Christ without receiving the language that makes the Trinity approachable to our faith?
Our joyful task is to become Christian, which means to become, in Christ the incarnate word, partakers of the Trinity who partakes in humanity. This truly is our identity.
What does this mean — for each of us and all of us — as we take up the task of listening to the signs of the times, while we live our faith in the world?
It relieves us of the burden of self-determination that identifying suggests, while breathing in the power of the Spirit to become full people, in real relationship with one another, through our relationship with the Trinity.
As a homiletics professor observed, the more we preach the one Christ, the more relevant our preaching will be. So too, the more we bear the eternal Word who God has spoken out of the silence, the more we will be able to hear and speak in our own time and language.
Can we perceive in ourselves God’s desire that we come to him not as individuals but together, carrying and supporting each other, listening even to our enemies while never ceasing to listen to the voice of God in Scripture and tradition?
We serve him in serving one another — rather than serving our own ideas and agendas. This word is clear and beautiful.
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Marrocco can be reached at email@example.com.