A few years ago there was a politician running for high political office. The economy was not doing well and people were struggling to get by. At one point during the campaign a reporter asked the candidate “how much does it cost for a gallon of milk?” The candidate got visibly uncomfortable and had a puzzled look on his face. He replied: “I don’t know.” Unfortunately for him the answer was deemed not acceptable to many voters. The politician seemed “out of touch” to many. People were heard to say that they did not identify with the candidate.
The expression “I can identify with him/her” is an idiom that expresses a relationship based on something in common. If we meet someone and have a common interest or view point we might say “now here is someone I can identify with.” For example, a friend of mine likes cars. He knows the makes and models; the insides and outsides; all the features and so forth. One day he was at a gathering with his wife meeting a lot of people from her workplace. He was having trouble connecting with people until he got into a conversation with another attendee who happened to like cars. I happened to be at the same gathering and when I saw him finish talking with the man I walked over. He greeted me with “now here is someone I can identify with.”
Jesus raises the question of his identify with his disciples. “Who do the crowds say that I am?” The disciples give various answers: John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the ancient prophets. The responses are inadequate so Jesus asks them “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds with the identification “The Christ of God.” Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, which literally means “the anointed one.” He correctly identifies Jesus. Jesus is aware of the popular conception of the longed-for messiah. The hope of Israel was that a messiah would arise who would free the people from oppression and foreign domination which they had endured to some extent for almost six centuries. Yet this is not the type of messiah the Jesus was or is. He certainly came to free the people from oppression but from a force far greater than any military or government. So he teaches the disciples about himself saying, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
At this point the question turns now to being a disciple. A disciple is literally a “student.” A disciple follows someone else who shows them the way to live. Naturally a disciple will need to “identify with” his master or teacher for indeed that is why they consider themselves to be disciples. Jesus tells his disciples: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Thus discipleship involves identifying oneself with Jesus.
The identification of the disciple with Jesus cannot be one based on ideas or interests alone. Discipleship of this nature goes much deeper than that. Being a disciple of Jesus entails identifying with his person, the whole of his life. Indeed discipleship demands identifying with His cross. In another Gospel passage Jesus tells us that He “lays down his life for his friends.” Here he is speaking of his willingly offering of himself for the benefit, indeed for the life of others.
The disciple is called to imitate the master in this regard. At the heart of Jesus’ mission is love. His love is self-emptying. He gives of himself for the good of others. This gift of love is seen in its fullest expression in his acceptance of the cross. As he empties Himself in love he relies on the Father to strengthen Him. He trusts that the Father will be with Him in His passion and death and will lead Him to the resurrection. The disciple is called imitate the self-giving of Jesus by embracing the cross – “daily.”
The cross is so central to discipleship that Jesus specifically uses the term “daily” to qualify his statement. It is as if Jesus is saying that carrying the cross is not a “one-time” event or occasion. Rather it is an integral part of Christian life. Carrying the cross will entail suffering but life will come through this act of giving. When we think of “carrying the cross” in our daily lives we can think of the many opportunities each day to offer ourselves in love for each other. Through acts of self-sacrifice in care and concern for others we can be an instrument of God’s saving love.
The opportunities are abundant – and simple: Parents busy with her children in a playground sees a child by him/herself and asks their children to include the others in play; a person busy at work stops to ask a colleague how they are doing when he/she notices that they are not their usual self; a person responds to a request for assistance to the poor; smeone greets another who walks by; somebody visits an elderly person who is alone. The examples are endless. All serve to help us imitate the self-giving love of Christ, and to carry the cross daily.
Many times we find solace that Jesus carried the cross. He can relate to our suffering and the sorrows we face in life. He can identify with us. Many times we see crucifixes, we have the cross prominently displayed in our churches and in our homes. We wear them around our neck or carry one in our pocket. Through these images we are reminded that God loves us, he suffered for us and he walks with us. Jesus, today invites us to identify ourselves with him. In this way the same crucifix or cross will also remind us that we are called to love as He loves so that we too can say, “I can identify with Him.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.