While discerning a vocation to Roman Catholic religious life years ago, I had the opportunity to go on retreat with a group of women religious. Although it was a silent retreat, part of our daily schedule involved celebrating Mass together where the priest, trying to be as inclusive as possible, often asked us to share our own reflections in place of his homily. One day, attempting to prepare us for the next day’s liturgy, he asked each of us to reflect on Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” as it is presented in Luke’s Gospel. We were to share our answers the next time we met. Young, nervous, and the only non-vowed woman present, I spent the entire day and night agonizing over how I would answer the question. I recall making lists of possible answers – “oh no, too sentimental” I’d think as I crossed one off, or “no, it has to be more complex,” I’d reason. The fact that I was studying theology only exacerbated the situation as I convinced myself that my answer had to be “profound,” something “Rahnerian” or “Tillichian,” anything but “Barrosian.”
Alas, the fateful moment arrived and we gathered to share our answers. As I sat and listened to each woman speak, I was constantly struck by the authenticity of her answer. Whether they called Jesus lover, friend, brother, savior, stranger, or whatever, it did not essentially matter; what mattered, it seemed to me, was that each woman felt empowered by her answer as it named a relationship that gave her life. Indeed, to this day, I do not remember the answer that I gave; I only remember realizing that whatever one’s answer might be, it should be life-giving.
Within the last few years, I have been struggling to name Jesus in ways that are life-giving for women who struggle within a Church that too readily tells them who they are (and are not) to be. In reflecting on this passage from Luke’s Gospel, I am struck by the way Jesus poses his question. After most of the disciples tell him who the crowds say he is – some say “‘John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen’” – Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?” I am struck by the use of “but” – that little word some of us learned on School House Rock through the catchy tune of “conjunction-junction what’s your function.” It’s a word that none of us usually likes to hear. “I like your dress, but…” “I love you, but…” It’s a word of conditions; it challenges, nuances, and sometimes negates what has preceded it. But Jesus uses it. Or, at least, it has somehow managed to be present in this version of the Gospel. And I’m glad it is present because it reminds me that naming or defining Jesus, much like naming and defining ourselves, is a continual process of affirming and negating, of challenging and believing. It is a call to be open to the ever-unfolding Mystery that we sometimes call “God.”