Monday, September 18, 2006

Jesus asks us: Who do you say I am?

Mk 8:27-35

Jesus and his disciples set out
for the villages of Caesarea Philippi.
Along the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”
They said in reply,
“John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others one of the prophets.”
And he asked them,
“But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said to him in reply,
“You are the Christ.”
Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Listen to what the prophet Isaiah said about 500 years before Peter:

Is 50:5-9a

The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
He is near who upholds my right;
if anyone wishes to oppose me,
let us appear together.
Who disputes my right?
Let that man confront me.
See, the Lord GOD is my help;
who will prove me wrong?

It has been a long time since I have even asked myself that question. I am so comfortable with whom Jesus is to me, that I don’t have to ask any more. I lived with Him from a young age and never really let go. For years my Jesus has been the same Lord of whom Isaiah speaks. Speak the truth openly. Say what you are going to do. Do what you say, on time and as close to perfect as possible.
I didn’t have to read Isaiah before I knew. I did not have to know Paul’s 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 22-28 where he names Jesus the new Adam. Paul said there that in Adam all men die, but in Christ, all men live.
Like St. Paul, I guess that all I can do is speak truthfully about my relationship with Jesus from the time that I could speak and understand. I knew then and I know now that Jesus, the Christ is my life. Like Isaiah, I know Jesus because I love Him. I love Jesus because He is tough, He is truth, He is right. Like Paul, I have given Jesus some mighty hard times. It wasn’t because I didn’t know Him. It was because I didn’t know myself. I know that if it weren’t for my acceptance of Jesus in love, I too would be dead, either physically or spiritually.

My father made it a point to tell everyone why he had named me Paul. He made it a point to tell me why he had given me the name. Paul is the missionary that my father wanted to be, but had to reduce his expectations when my grandfather died at age 36. My father never stopped being a missionary. After two years in the La Salette seminary, he had already become God’s messenger. My mother’s father never passed time with me without teaching me something about Jesus. All I had to do was to look at my grandfather and my father and I knew Jesus.

My maternal grandfather lost his dominant hand in an industrial accident when he was still young. For over two years he battled depression through one dead-end job after another. The crusty old La Salette Missionary pastor who founded the Immaculate Conception church in the industrial, blue collar Massachusetts City where I was born, would come to the house every Friday night to play Parcheesi. One Friday night he told my grandfather, “Joseph, Monday
you’re starting to work for me. Bring your tool chest.” My grandfather pulled out all the excuses he could to get out of it because he considered himself an invalid, but the tough mountain boy from the craggy Alps just said, “Enough! Be there.” He then left. My grandfather had no choice. His wife and children helped him get his tool chest together for the first time in years. That Monday was the first day of a relationship that would last for more than 50 years. His artistic cabinetry still stands proudly in the parish rectory. Every time I looked at Rev, Father Jules Ginet, MS, I saw Jesus. Every time I think of him, even now, I see Jesus. That Jesus is one tough “hombre.”

I could name a phalanx of good, Christian people, relatives and friends who showed me the living Jesus. In my life, no cream-puffs were allowed. My grandfather Joseph got out of his depression. When he found himself, there were two of us grandchildren who found out how to love him, and we both found Jesus at the same time.

The head of the altar servers who worked for Father Ginet was one tough, French Canadian hockey player type. After Father Ginet, he was my man. My father was no slouch, either. I loved him because I had the privilege of seeing him both, at home and at work. He could teach, train, coach and do anything anybody else in the shop could do, only better. If you didn’t learn, or you didn’t produce, you were history man, because that was the true way it was. I would hear the bible stories that my grandfather and my father would tell me (from memory of course) and they were always about God getting His way. I knew that they were talking about their own Heavenly Father. How could I miss seeing Jesus there?

As I grew up, I turned into what we used to call “a fair country ball player.” I was proud of that. When I went to the seminary, as though I would do anything else having been brought up like I was, I had to make a true career decision. I had to choose between Jesus and baseball. I wish I could sit here and tell you that it was easy. Let me tell you that Ol’ Beelzebub caught me out in a hot corner of the desert and really turned up the heat. The worst of it was that during the baseball season between my first and second year of seminary, our team went all the way and won the regional championship. Now come on, what is this, “Damn Yankees?” I went back to the seminary, but let me tell you, the Boss from the Inferno was still serenading real hard.

The next summer, I think that St. Paul himself and my guardian angel conspired to give me a little lesson in reality. Instead of playing with 16 and 17 year olds, I accepted an offer to play in the unlimited league. I had a good summer, for a guy my age and especially for a guy my size. At 5’4” and 150 pounds, St. Paul was telling me all summer long, “Dion, get the hell off that horse. This is Damascus, can’t you tell?” I didn’t listen, I kept baseball in my heart although I returned to the seminary. That’s the year that I was told to take some time off because there were some doubts in the front office about my ability to carry Jesus’ torch. I went home. My father who drove the 300 miles over 1954 winding roads, was really nice to me. My grandfather was long gone by then. It was March. I went to work rather than enroll in school. Jesus was really good to me too. He was always there. He would always be there stroking my shoulder telling me to relax, calm down. You’re going to ride this out. I think that He also took it into His own hands and called the manager of the unlimited league to tell him that I would not be very good for their purposes. Oh, sure, Jesus, as if you know anything about baseball! The fact of the matter is, it was the best thing that ever happened. It was the first summer since I was seven years old that I did not play baseball. You know what? I didn’t even die from it! That did it. I was out of the seminary for a year and one half and back I was, baseball be damned, right along with Beelzebub and the rest of all those strike-out artists. I am sure that that is the summer when I learned to appreciate Jonah.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the toughest place where Jesus and I came eye to eye. I didn’t know it yet but I was getting cozy with Jesus. It was several years after He went behind my back and cut my baseball "career" short. I was the boss, now and I was coasting along when one day I made one of my patented French-Canadian Hockey Player decisions and in a couple hours discovered what Jesus looks like when your staring down the barrel of a .45 Magnum. Surprise of all surprises, I didn’t shiver, my voice did not waiver, I just told the man to stow it (I’m betting that Jesus really was the one), and he did. I was glad to get the help.

Don't ask me why, but from that moment, things got a little cool with me and Jesus. I kept slaving away, doing my work, but the soul was gone. For the first time in my life I slid away from Jesus, not far, but too far for comfort. I started to take things into my own hands, and it took me a long time to discover that I had more thumbs than I really needed. There were a lot of times too when I was sure that I didn’t remember having two left feet. There I was, 37 years old and treating Jesus like a 15 year old treats his father. You know, ignore Him the best you can. Do what you can to make yourself happy. All that good immature stuff that you all remember from having been there yourselves.

Well, you know, Jesus and His Dad and His Creative, Sanctifying Spirit are unbelievable capable beings. They took all my middle aged tomfoolery and brought it back to better than normal so that we are all back on track, and going just about as fast as we ever did…and all together too. They even gave me a wife and two children to make the job easier. Listen, y’all, I’ve done some mighty stupid things. I’ve even done some downright bad things. I couldn’t shake Jesus. He’d hide in the dark corners at night and attack me in the shower. Or I’d be driving along coming back from nasty escapade and there He would be in the passenger seat, looking at me and saying, “You dumb so-and-so, when are you going to learn?” I’d be at Mass on Sunday and the reading would be like a bomb on a stick, “Go and tell everyone who I am.”

Oh, and the worst of all. When He would have enough of me for a little bit, He would sic His Mom on me. Man alive, there is nothing like a crying Mother to make you feel sooo baaaad! He knows that His Mom at La Salette can get anything out of me. And she does.

Even now when I’m relatively good.

So now you know my secret. Jesus is not an individual. Jesus is a team. Dad, Son and Spirit, and finally, Mom. They can really turn things around, even before you know it. And it always comes out better than what is was. Jesus knows all my weaknesses, and especially the big one, His crying Mom. You’d be surprised how often He uses that one. He usually uses that trump ace when He sees me getting wound up over Church politics. He knows how much I hate Church politics. They’re all over too. It drives me nuts…until Jesus sends in the Crying Mom. Frankly, I think that Jesus rather fancies playing the politics game, myself. In fact I shout at Him every so often, “Why do you let this *%@# go on?

So maybe He can’t figure me out. That's probably why He's letting me get so old. I see Him smiling at me though when I pray and say a naughty word at Him. So when I do that, He just goes for the jugular to quiet me down and bring me back to my normal friendship with Him. I think He does it too because He knows that I would never slip a gutter word out in front of Mom.

Jesus has been treating me with kid gloves here in Moreno Valley. He personally called me and His loving servant, my wife Isabel, to come here to work with Him, the La Salette Missionaries and of course the Weeping Mother, as She is more formally known. He knows that He can get away with testing me more stiffly now that I am getting older. I am also sure that He is working on the pastor here at St. Christopher. I think He’s saying, “Paul is not so bad as He used to be in San Mateo, give him a little rope and we’ll see what happens. Don’t worry, I know how to control him.” Now, Father Romy doesn’t know this, but Jesus also has a back-up when it comes to keeping me in line. He sends my father. Yeah, my real father. You know, the missionary who named me Paul. Stop laughing. It’s true. He does.1 My father and I have to laugh sometimes
because some of the stuff is nothing more than petty politics. But that’s what’s nice about having your father in heaven. He comes, and you know that Jesus has given him a little errand to make a point. It's usually is something like, “Paul, don’t forget your name.” Ouch! I wince, he smiles and I say to Jesus, “Thanks. I needed that.” I've been going through that since the earliest 60's.

So you see. I’m telling you that Jesus is tough. He never backs away from the Truth. He is the Truth. I swim in St. John’s gospel often every week because Jesus tells me what John meant here and there. John was a good writer, better than some of the others. But I believe that Jesus likes John’s gospel best. It is in John’s gospel that Jesus tells His disciples and us who He really is. It is here too that He tells us who we should really be.

I am convinced that if we really want to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” we have to be able to answer the question, “Who am I?” You know something? That is a life-long project. The better the answer gets, the closer we get to heaven. The closer we get to the Pearly Gates, the closer we get to not having to get up to go to work in the morning. Now, when I get to that final point, if I catch you crying, I’m going to send my newly laid-off guardian angel to wring your ear. In the meantime, I’m going to pray that you all will have the courage and the grace to someday broadcast your answer to the Jesus question,

“Who do you say I am?”

1 Non Catholics reading this are shaking their heads wondering how we Catholics can be so sure that God can use the saints as His messengers to help us poor humans on our way to heaven. Sorry, guys, it’s so natural for us. Do you know where your father is today?
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