Beyond Identity

The following is the slightly edited text of a homily given at Mission Santa Clara on Sunday, January 6, 2019, the feast of the Epiphany.  The Epiphany, or manifestation of God to all peoples, is symbolized by the well-known story of the visit of the Magi to the stable.  The Magi are represented as coming from a far-off land, the ultimate exotic outsiders.

Before we close out the Christmas season, we return to the manger.  Charming as the story of the Magi may be, it is in fact an odd, even comical, scene.  We are back at that same stable, a rustic and dirt poor refuge where the Savior has been born. The shepherds are there, but they were not styled then as the gentle pastoral types we see in manger scenes; they were considered in their own time to be socially marginal yahoos.  One commentator compared them to members of a motorcycle gang—threatening and to be avoided. And they were presumably not regular synagogue attendees.  Onto this scene, in the boondocks of Bethlehem, arrive the three astrologers, sumptuously clothed, laden with precious gifts.  Together with the oxen, donkeys, and the rest, we have a menagerie to entertain the newborn king.

It was “outsiders” not of the Jewish people who first recognized that a “king”—more specific to the Jewish imagination, a Messiah—had been born.  These outsiders were in possession of an insight that it would take some time for even Jesus’ own disciples to see and accept.  And the people of Jerusalem would persist in perceiving Jesus simply as a country rustic, an irritating rabbi imposter.  Yet it was non-Jews who would recognize that in this helpless baby, born in a stable, God had come to save not some, or even many, but all, without distinction.  As Paul reminds us: “the Gentiles”—outsiders—“are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:5–6).

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Palestinian shepherd, West Bank

It is the outsider, and the outsider in us, the Gentile in us, that God summons to the stable, to come inside, to enter into the ambit of God’s love.  There is no judgment here, but only inclusion of and co-partnership with the outsider. This serves as a model of what the church must become.  As Pope Francis recently wrote to the US bishops:

The Church. . .bears in her heart and soul the sacred mission of being a place of encounter and welcome not only for her members but for all humanity. It is part of her identity and mission to work tirelessly for all [and to] contribute to unity between individuals and peoples. . .without distinction.  For “there does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are on in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

What a radical view of reality, for any time, but especially for a time like ours, when rather than imagining ourselves as one in our humanity, we have divided ourselves into tribes, parties, and generations:  Boomers vs. Millennials, progressives vs. reactionaries, liberal vs. conservative Catholics, straight and gay, citizens or aliens—marking ourselves off from others and building walls between us.  This is the age of identity, a preoccupation that arises when the world seems difficult to map and people feel fearful, fragile, or flung at sea.  We turn then, perhaps naturally enough, to what we think we know most intimately—ourselves, our group, and fortify ourselves in an identity essentialism that easily functions as an ideology.

Yet we can delude ourselves by delimiting ourselves within one or even multiple identities.  We can paper over the multi-layered complexity of human experience, of our own hidden and interior selves—a complexity that resists sharp demarcation or boundary.  And, worse, when we claim identities in a group or tribal way, we can be drawn into impasse, demonization of the other, and dismissal of certain people (the way shepherds were dismissed as ruffians) or writing off whole generations as either too old or too young.  The worst outcomes of identity absolutism are truly dreadful, as we have seen on the worldwide political stage and in the tragedies of war and genocide.

There is of course validity to acknowledging our distinctiveness.  We may come from a home infused with a culture—be it Italian, Irish, Mexican, Filipino or Vietnamese—where language, food, religion, customs, and family systems are distinctive.  This is a good thing.  Yet there are some identities, or locales of human experience, such as those of women, of LGBTQ people, and of African-American people, that need to be vigorously asserted within the life of a church that is still exclusionary and inscribes some forms of exclusion in doctrine (namely, the exclusion of women from ordination, and the deficient language about gay sexuality in the Catechism that has led to exclusionary practices).  But in seeking an ideal church, we need to keep in mind that in Jesus’ view of the world, there are to be no identities at war with one another, and this must be pressed. Those whom I or we or some might consider to be outsiders are not only to be included, but they are to become co-heirs, co-partners. We are to learn from them and from one another.

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Border fence, Nogales

This is very difficult for us to grasp and accept, because it threatens the boundaries set by  any claim to self-certain identity.  It is a little bit scary. Yet it lies at the core of God’s revelation in Jesus. To be a Christian is to live in a fundamental openness to the other, even the radically different, for God may be at work there, and that other may indeed see God in a way that we do not, as did the Magi.  This possibility that God is present in the “alien” other is the foundation of Pope Francis’s urging that Catholics not build walls, but welcome refugees, for they are among the outsiders, the “Gentiles” of our time.  It is also the foundation for an openness to and embrace of those, like the shepherds, whose very presence might unsettle the comfortable.

Jesus’ deepest identity lay not in his Jewishness, gender or politics. It lay in his intimacy with the mystery of God, whom he called Father.  This intimacy anchored him and captured his imagination like a star in the vast heavens.  It freed him to transcend boundaries and to welcome the outsider. This began at his birth. The great star that hovered over the stable in Bethlehem was awaiting his gaze.  That star remains a reminder today that God’s love is offered to all people, inviting all, without exception, into God’s family, and that our deepest “identity” lies in intimacy with God—an intimacy that frees us and finally dissolves the need for any identity.  This is the intimacy that the Magi sought, and which they found, alongside the shepherds, in the poverty of the manger.  May it be so for us.

For further reading, the pope’s letter can be found at http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com.  It is well worth a read.  For a reconsideration of the notion of identity in our time, see Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (New York: Liveright, 2018).

3 thoughts on “Beyond Identity”

  1. Thank you for this homily; I’m glad to have heard it in person.
    The Pope’s letter is very promising, it holds hope.

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  2. Beautiful homily, Paul. I wish and pray that as we identify as a Christian nation, we could (collectively) act and make decisions based on this identity. So identity, in some ways is binding, or should be at least ethically.

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