The reading at Mass today is (in part) about identifying people. Jesus asks for some polling data: who do “people” say I am? Maybe a prophet, or Elijah, or John the Baptist returned from the dead. Okay, forget the polling data; here’s a different question: who do YOU say I am? Peter responds, explaining who he believes Jesus to be. And promptly, Jesus re-names Peter, and clarifies his – Peter’s – identity and role.
We don’t know who we are in a vacuum. We figure out who we are in a context, in some social matrix or other. I would argue that we know ourselves best when we see ourselves in a social context that includes the Person who created all Contexts.
But still – with or without a personal relationship with God, a relationship in which we know somebody and sense that this person knows us – we fill in details about our identity by moving in and out of a variety of social contexts.
Me: I like bright eyes. Bright, lively, dancing. I’m not always able to tell the difference between the brightness of mischief (say, Eddie Murphy) and the brightness of holiness (say, Mother Teresa). I have to watch what people do for a while to distinguish. At first appearance, the delight in their eyes attracts me. I like wise guys and wise men, and I’m slow to figure out which is which. That’s what I see, and I think that that’s a large part of what shapes me.
When we were six or seven, walking along, my friend Grant Mallett got in front of me and stopped to inspect my face. “You have wrinkles already,” he announced. I did. I had lines across my brow. He didn’t. His face was smooth and tranquil. I decided right then that if I was going to get wrinkles, I should get the right wrinkles. I wanted smile lines, out from my eyes, and around my mouth. That was 60 years ago; today, in general, I think I got what I wanted.
During the war in Vietnam, I did alternative service, working in hospitals, and I loved it. I remember going into the room of an old guy with a list of new and dangerous infections. They had put him in solitary confinement, with red warning signs all over the place. You had to put on masks and gloves and gowns and – I don’t recall what all, maybe you had to carry a flame-thrower to purify the air you breathed. I went in there, and the guy looked depressed and lonely. And I said, “God damn, man, there’s a lot of stuff between you and the rest of the world. Are you still a human being over there?” He looked up and met me eye to eye, and half-grinned: “You got that right! Shit!” Score.
In 2000, I went to a party with Pope John Paul II and 2.3 million of his closest friends – World Youth Day in Rome. Many wonderful things happened that week. But a detail from the vigil at a university outside Rome. 2.3 million kids and chaperones were camping all over the rolling hills there, and the Pope flew in by helicopter. We sang a while and prayed a while, then the Pope (his staff) set off fireworks for a while. There were jumbo screens all over the hills, so everyone could see the center stage. And there was this old guy with Parkinson’s, hunched over. When the fireworks were done, he looked up – Parkinson’s freezes your face and you couldn’t read expressions there, but his voice was clear – and he asked, “Vot should ve do now?” Well, 2.3 million kids wanted to laugh and scream and dance, so that’s vot ve did. The old guy didn’t dance, but he knew how to party. He couldn’t dance, but he could create a “ve” who could. Joy is stronger than old age.
I don’t feel good about laughter when others are suffering. Well, so what? Who cares whether John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe “feels good”? Fair question. Maybe not a lot of people, but I care. And I admit freely that that’s a part of the reason I want to visit some of the Syrian refugees who live in Baltimore. I want their permission to laugh. Ammar Jafar, the imam at the Germantown masjid and a friend, has bright bright eyes. Maybe he fasts until he’s crazy with bright eyes. Maybe he’s an accomplished liar with bright eyes. But I think he knows who he is because he knows his relationship with God, and he is happy with radiant bright eyes. His community serves a dozen refugee families. One day, when Ammar goes to Baltimore, I’ll go with, and maybe help a little. Maybe I can bring some bread; my bread is some of the best in the world. These refugees – their lives have encroached on my life; I’m not sure how or why, but I recognize the flat fact. I have tasted their pain, second hand, through Ammar. I need to see their hope and vitality and courage and joy, first hand. I know which is stronger, but I need to see it.
Joy. Find it in God. Find it in friends. And test its limits confidently, because there aren’t any.