Earlier this week I had to renew my driver’s license, which prompted a bit of an existential crisis – and not just because I had to have my picture taken. With the REAL ID deadline months away, I scrambled to gather several key forms of identification that were required to ensure my new license would comply with enhanced federal standards. Passport, Social Security card, birth certificate, mortgage deed, water bill and possibly the dog’s rabies vaccination certificate were all thrown into a binder, and I marched into the licensing center, ready to prove I was indeed myself.
Amid the mundane task, I reflected on how much of our time and energy is spent on questions of identity.
Back in the 15th century, Joan of Arc didn’t claim more than a first name, and she wasn’t entirely sure of her age: “As for my surname, I know of none. … As far as I know, (I am) about 19 years old,” she told her inquisitors.
Nowadays, we can rattle off our DNA ancestry test results, our political party, our religious affiliations (or lack thereof), our demographic cohort, our favorite sports teams and a host of other “identity markers.”
In recent years, those markers have increased with dizzying speed. In 2014, Facebook expanded its gender options for users, a list that at the time totaled 58 and has likely grown since.
A year after the social media giant’s expansion of gender options, a team of Israeli and American academics released a study finding that “false self-presentation on Facebook is a growing phenomenon,” one that “in extreme cases … when one’s Facebook images substantially deviates from their true image … may serve as a gateway behavior to more problematic behaviors which may lead to psychological problems and even pathologies.”
The researchers didn’t specifically address the gender option variable, and they noted that “false self-presentation … is not a phenomenon that was invented in the digital age,” something a quick read through the first few chapters of Genesis affirms: having defied his Creator, man turned to fig leaves, fingerpointing and doublespeak to patch up his shattered post-fall identity.
Despite our already extensive practice in the art of deception, in this century we are fragmenting the human person still more into a bewildering array of “fluid” labels, watching pieces of ourselves float away while our house built on sand crumbles into a sea of (to borrow a 12-step program phrase) “self-will run riot.”
In Christ, however, we need not fear this collapse, for the One who made us has taken on our sin-sick flesh and has healed it definitively through his Passion, Death and Resurrection, “that what we had lost in Adam, that is, being in the image and likeness of God, we might recover in Christ Jesus” (St. Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” 3, 18, 1).
And this salvation was wrought not for humanity as a general concept, but for each and every one of us: “All Christ’s riches ‘are for every individual and are everybody’s property’” (St. John Paul II, “Redemptor Hominis,” 11; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 519).
Through baptism, we are “sacramentally assimilated to Jesus” (Catechism, 537), who first entered those waters so that after we have been bathed at the font, “the Holy Spirit swoops down upon us from high heaven and … adopted by the Father’s voice, we become sons of God” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, “Commentary on Matthew,” 2, 5).
For that reason, St. Paul – he who had once persecuted the church with such zeal – could exult that “whoever is in Christ is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17).
In the end, we don’t need passports, preferred pronouns or political parties to reveal who we are, as St. Joan of Arc well knew.
Betrayed, abused and wrongly condemned as a heretic, the Maid of Orleans (one of the world’s best documented people in history, according to French historian Régine Pernoud) was fastened to a stake and, as the executioner lit the flames, asked for a cross to be held before her eyes.
Uncertain of her actual age or a formal last name, with fire scorching her flesh and smoke searing her lungs, Joan confessed her true identity in a single word, uttered at least six times, and her last on this earth: “Jesus.”
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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