Questions of Identity

Homily for Sunday, January 19, 2020
Epiphany 2A

From a movie that just came out at Christmas and is still in theatres, here are three quotes.  (And you’re welcome to guess the movie, if you like)…

“Beware, she is not who you think she is.”
“Who is she?” (Palpatine and Kylo Ren, in The Rise of Skywalker)

“I pushed you in the desert because I needed to see you.  I needed to see who you are.” (Kylo Ren to Rey)

“I’m going to find Palpatine and destroy him.”
“Rey, that doesn’t sound like you.  Rey, I know you.”
“People keep telling me they know me—no one does.” (Rey to Finn)

rey_star_warsHaving not seen a “Star Wars” movie since, like, 2005(?), I was pleasantly surprised to discover, when Olivia and I went to see The Rise of Skywalker (the latest, the movie from which these quotes are taken), that the Star Wars entertainment machine has moved beyond “explosions, close shaves and grindingly unsurprising saves,” and actually made a movie that has “a scale and sensibility… rooted in the human” (Manohla Dargis, New York Times, Dec 16, 2015).  In the latest trilogy of films (of which The Rise of Skywalker is the third), special effects and relative anonymity cede prominence to story and character.  The trinity of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia from the old movies, for example—a trinity best-known for having heavy fingers on the trigger—is replaced with another trinity, that of Poe, Finn and Rey, who have rich back stories, real vulnerabilities, and character development.  Bad-guy Darth Vader is replaced with bad-guy Kylo Ren, played by a brooding Adam Driver who steals the show (I think) for his villain with a conscience.  And rather than strive merely for entertainment through special effects or shoot-em-ups, the latest movies showcase existential angst, questions of purpose and what makes for a meaningful life.

As the quotes from the movie suggest, one of the themes of this latest trilogy—I would even say the main theme—is identity: “Who are you?”  The case of identity is especially important for Rey, the protagonist (played by Daisy Ridley).  Rey moves from, in the first movie, when asked, “Who are you?” responding with, “I’m no one,” to, in the subsequent movies, at least answering, “I’m Rey,” but with no family name (“I’m just Rey”), to, in response to the very same question, “Who are you?” in the last scene of the last movie, saying, “I’m Rey.”  “Rey who?” “Rey Skywalker.”  Rey moves from being “no one” to being “just Rey” to knowing who she is: “Rey Skywalker.”

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Curiously, the words, “Who are you?” are the very first spoken words in St. John’s Gospel:

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” (John 1:19)

And the theme of identity—“Who are you?”—continues throughout St. John’s Gospel.  As we just heard in chapter 1 (33–34), “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain… is the Son of God.”  In chapter 5 (27), “he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.”  In chapter 6 (35), “I am the bread of life.”  In chapter 8 (12), “I am the light of the world.”  And so on throughout the Gospel up to and including the very last line:

These are written that you may come to believe  that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (20:31).

Like The Rise of Skywalker, John is about identity.  John continually asks and answers the question: “Who are you?”

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But John is not only about Jesus’ identity; perhaps more importantly, John is also about our identity.  Among the first words Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel are words of identity: in today’s Gospel, Jesus looks at Peter and tells him who he is:

Jesus… looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

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220px-bartolomc3a9_esteban_murillo_-_adoration_of_the_magi_-_google_art_project

Adoration of the Magi, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

An Epiphany, in the words of Merriam-Webster, is “the sudden realization or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”  To be sure, the Epiphany—the season of the Church year that began on January 6—is about “the sudden realization or perception of the essential nature or meaning” of Jesus.  But Epiphany is also about “the sudden realization or perception of the essential nature or meaning” of us, of who we are.

 

All Scripture tells us who we are; but today’s readings were chosen, I think, to tell us—having last Sunday renewed our Baptismal vows, Baptism being the root of our identity as Christians—who we are:

  • From Isaiah: “The Lordcalled me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me…” (Isaiah 49:1).  We are ones whom God called before we were born.
  • Also from Isaiah: “[He] formed me in the womb to be his servant” (Isaiah 49:5). We were formed by God, already in the womb, to serve God.
  • From 1 Corinthians: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2). We are ones whom God has sanctified and called to be saints.
  • Also from 1 Corinthians: “You have been enriched in him… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:5–7). We are those whom God has enriched and who are not lacking for any spiritual gifts.
  • From today’s Collect: “Grant that your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.” We are those illumined by God’s word and sacraments; and we are to shine in the world with Christ’s glory.

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hunt-light-of-the-world

The Light of the World, oil on canvas by William Holman Hunt, 1851–2

In the West, we have long prized “Knowing thyself,” as the Delphic oracle puts it.  We have long valued “to thine own self being true,” as Polonius puts it.  As we move from the renewal of our Baptismal vows last Sunday through the Epiphany season, and then into Lent and on to the Easter Vigil (where we will renew our Baptismal vows again), I invite us to pay attention to what these seasons and rites tell us about who we are.  Our vows, our Scriptures, and the words, gestures and elements of the Sacrament—everything we do here in the liturgy—tells us who we Christians are.  In the liturgy, as he did at Peter, Jesus looks at us and invites us to “know thyself,” and, “to thine own self be true,”  and—as Palpatine said to Kylo Ren—to “Beware, she is not who you think she is.”  Because, baptized into Christ, “she” (whoever “she” may be) is much more than meets the eye; baptized into Christ, “he” is much more; and you and I and we are much more…  For we are ones whom God has called, whom God has formed, whom God has sanctified, who are not lacking for any spiritual gift—we are Christians.  And God is counting on us—as today’s Collect puts it—to be “illumined by [God’s] word and sacraments,” and to shine “with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”

 

I pray this season that we may be faithful in hearing God’s word and receiving the sacraments.  I pray that we might thereby be confirmed in our identity and move from being “I’m no one,” or “Once you were not a people,” to “but now you are God’s people” (to quote 1 Peter).  From “I’m just me,” to “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”  For God is counting on us to “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory” in this darkened world, and—in a way that only we in our own unique way can do—to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

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