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Terrance KleinMarch 28, 2024
“The Capture of Christ” by Fra Angelico, c. 1440, Wikipedia

A Homily for Good Friday

Readings: Isaiah 52:13–53:12 Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 John 18:1–19:42

Who are you? The question can be a bit uncomfortable. If someone is asking, she evidently feels entitled to something that you have not yet provided: a clear statement of your identity.

The question is even more unsettling if, in reflective moments, we ask it of ourselves. Is our own identity not clear to us?

Here’s an example. In my junior year of college, I decided to leave the seminary to enroll at the University of Kansas. Before departing, I felt that I owed a personal explanation to each of the priests on the faculty. One of them, Msgr. Ralph Huntzinger, kindly tried to ease my jitters by employing a common trope of the ’70s. “I get it, Terry. You need to find yourself.”

I had never understood the meaning of the expression. How do you lose yourself in the first place? My quest was to date the women of Kansas, not find myself. Yet now I realize that the two were more entwined than I thought at the time.

St. John’s Passion narrative puts the same question to us. “Who are you?” All the Gospels pose the question because they are more than histories, their task being more than simply to record what happened. No, the Gospels are proclamations because they announce good news and await a response. As we hear the story, we are asked to enter it, to ask of ourselves, how would I respond in the same situation? And, ultimately, to ask: Having heard this proclamation, how will I now respond?

“Who are you?” Jesus is the first to answer the question, and he does so confidently, even regally. So sure is he of his identity, which is nothing less than the mission he has received from his Father. For Jesus, mission and identity are one.

In St. John’s Gospel, there is no revealing kiss from the betrayer. Jesus himself addresses the armed men who have entered the garden.

“Whom are you looking for?”
They answered him, “Jesus the Nazorean.”
He said to them, “I AM.”
Judas his betrayer was also with them.
When he said to them, “I AM,”
they turned away and fell to the ground (Jn 18:4-6).

John’s Gospel is full of these probing questions. “Whom are you looking for?” At the opening of the Gospel, two of the Baptist’s disciples are asked the same (1:38). So is the Magdalene at its close. “Whom are you looking for?” (20:15)

In the garden, Jesus boldly claims his identity. Indeed, he employs the personal name of God, the one revealed to Moses in the burning bush. Jesus says, “I AM” (egō eimi in Greek). And his adversaries realize the depth of his reply. They fall to the ground, a typical response in Scripture to the presence of God.

Before we ask the same question of ourselves—who am I? —notice that Jesus immediately links his identity to those whom he loves. The same is true for us.

At the Last Supper, in his high priestly prayers, Jesus had said,

When I was with them
I protected them in your name that you gave me,
and I guarded them,
and none of them was lost
except the son of destruction,
in order that the scripture might be fulfilled (Jn 17:12).

This is the mission of Jesus, his deep identity before the Father: to love those whom the Father has given to him and to give his life for them.

My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life,
and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me,
is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand (Jn 10:28-29).

Now Jesus shows the depth of his mission, his identity. He has come into the world to care for, to protect, those whom the Father has given to him.

So he again asked them,
“Whom are you looking for?”
They said, “Jesus the Nazorean.”
Jesus answered,
“I told you that I AM.
So if you are looking for me, let these men go.”
This was to fulfill what he had said,
“I have not lost any of those you gave me” (Jn 18:7-9).

Clearly, when we question ourselves about our own identities, the answer must lie with those whom we love, with those whom we have been given to love. Because God has given them to us, they are our mission, our deep identity. See them, and we see ourselves.

But are we sure of our answer? The proclamation of the Passion is not finished questioning us. The same query is put to Peter, who had promised, only the night before, that “I will lay down my life for you” (Jn 13:37). It is posed in a manner that presupposes an easy denial: “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” (Jn 18:17).

St. John is merciless with his irony. The love that once enflamed an Egyptian bush is extinguished. In terror, Peter answers, “I am not” (ouk eimi) (Jn 18:17).

St. John’s Passion reminds us that simply being ourselves is not something we can take for granted. No, it demands courage. If we are those whom God has given us to love, there will indeed be times when being ourselves is difficult because we are afraid, because we are tired, because we are wounded, because we are, as we say, merely human.

Still, we must decide who we will be, and we must do that every day of our lives. We are told of Peter’s failure so that we know that return and repentance are always options. Indeed, these are ever so much better than obfuscation or a refusal to ask ourselves who we are.

St. John saves his real pity for the Jewish leaders. Rejecting the very presence of God, they find themselves in the most lamentable of positions. They deny their God-given identity as the chosen people. They blaspheme the God of Israel and his promise of a Messiah when they tell Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar” (Jn 19:15). Evidently, as hard as being true to yourself is, being someone you are not is even harder.

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