Spend time before a crucifix and the major virtues Christ Jesus embodies there are quickly in evidence: love, patience, humility, obedience, and detachment. We might identify as well the virtue of understanding who and what one is, even (or especially) within one’s obedience.
We Christians are not encouraged to spend much time thinking about ourselves, and on the whole, that is a good thing. Still, the paradox remains: It is only through first knowing who we are—what gifts we possess (and do not), our best and worst propensities and serious flaws—that we are able to put aside any idea of worthiness (which we utterly lack) in order to declare our willingness, before God, to make an offering of our whole selves. Self-understanding makes our own obedience valuable as a witness to others and meaningful as an assent to the Creator.
It was Jesus’ precise understanding of himself that propelled his own obedience, even through personal weariness and his Gethsemane terrors. Found within the temple, he asks his shaken parents, “where else would I be?” At a wedding in Cana, he gives in to his mother, while reminding her “my hour has not yet come.” Throughout the Gospels the evidence of Christ’s self-awareness comes to us through his own words or the acknowledgement of others: He is a man (John 4:29); a son (Luke 2:48); a friend (John 15:14); a lamb and sin-sacrifice (John 1:29). His who?—“The Christ” (Mark 8:29). His what?—the Word (John 1:1); One in being, with the Father (John 10:30).
For that matter, most of the apostles are presented as both who and what. Matthew, the tax-collector; Nathaniel, the “Israelite Without Guile”; Thomas, the skeptic; block-headed Peter, foundational Rock. Others come into the story and are never named. We don’t know who they are, but we know what they are as they meet Christ: the leper; the adulteress; the Samaritan woman from whom he asks a drink. These scenes are particularly interesting, because an encounter with Jesus is an encounter with Truth, so he does not try to pretend that the leper is not a leper; he says, “be healed” and tells him to show himself to the priests and be ritually cleansed. Jesus does not tell the woman she is not an adulteress; he says, “go and sin no more.” He does not tell the Samaritan woman that she is living well; he tells her sins before disclosing his identity to her.
Meeting Christ dramatically alters the lives of each of these people, and yet in order to tell their stories, they must declare to others their whole selves—claim themselves as both who and what. The healed leper is perfectly healthy, and yet he must identify himself as a leper in order to be a witness to others. The adulteress later (we believe) returns with expensive nard and as she anoints Christ’s hair and feet, her weeping is a public declaration of her who-and-what, and God’s mercy. The Samaritan woman says “Come see a man who told me everything I have done.” After talking with Jesus, her excitement is so great that she drops all pretenses about her past or present state.
The encounter with Christ renews, cleanses, and alters behavior as it amends purpose, but it does not change the essential who and what of any of these people. The man will always be mindful that he was leprous—it is what makes his witness valuable. The penitent remembers her adultery because her deliverance keeps her heart humbly grateful. The Samaritan’s propensities do not change, but perhaps her willingness to surrender to them does. All three risk being misunderstood in their outreach, though, among those in their own community who knew them before, and by strangers who are naturally prone to distrust.
All of this is worth pondering in light of an ongoing debate about faithful same-sex-attracted Catholics (who Crisis Magazine’s Austin Ruse calls “The New Homophiles”). Central to the debate seems to be a desire on the part of these Catholics to feel truly welcomed within the Church, as both who and what, not least for the value of their witness to others who see the Church (and the cross) as offering nothing to them. The leper and the adulteress and the Samaritan woman all had to bring their whole stories into their evangelical actions; why would not our gay brothers and sisters?
These Christians are met with a sense of distrust by those who suspect an intention to subvert Church doctrine (this despite their stated acceptance of church teaching) and also with something like disgust. In combox debate it is more than hinted that, as regards our homosexual brethren, and only them, obedience is not enough; that even to experience temptation is to be guilty of grave sin. This is what writer Mark Shea calls “a perfect formula for inducing despair in the homosexual who genuinely wishes to follow Christ.”
In his Principles of Catholic Theology, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote:
The reason why an individual cannot accept the you, cannot come to terms with him, is that he does not like his own I and, for that reason, cannot accept a you . . . But how does one go about affirming, assenting to, one’s I? The answer may perhaps be unexpected: we cannot do so by our own efforts alone. Of ourselves, we cannot come to terms with ourselves. Our I becomes acceptable to us only if it has first become acceptable to another I. We can love ourselves only if we have first been loved by someone else. . . . If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist”—must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love. For it is the way of love to will the other’s existence and, at the same time, to bring that existence forth again.
It appears these Christians want to hear “it is good that you exist” from other members of the Church, without the proviso that they should shut up about their who or their what. For better or worse, who we are and what we are matters to the totality of our experience of God, which directly influences our capacity to love, which is the greatest virtue, the one that ignites every other.
Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles can be found here.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?