With the Feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola celebrated today, July 31, the Jesuit university Ateneo de Manila held its annual Ignatian Festival this month. And a constant source of inspiration and guidance for Jesuits and their institutions worldwide is the eight-day or month-long retreats called the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.
The believer undergoing the Exercises is directed to ask and even beg the Lord for the grace of interior knowledge of the Lord, so that by knowing the Lord more intimately, he may be able to love the Lord more dearly, and so to follow him more closely. Thus, the exercitant faces the question of Jesus to his disciples: ‘Who do you say that I am?’.
The answer, of course, is life-changing. If, as Peter said in the June 29 Gospel reading, one replies “You are the Messiah of God”, or “You are the Christ of the living God”, then one’s normal state of fending for oneself and striving for worldly joy, becomes untenable. If one believes that Jesus is our Lord and our God, as Thomas, another disciple of flawed faith, exclaimed in a reading, then the only rightful response is discipleship.
The invitation of knowing the Lord more clearly was really a call to discipleship.
Followers of Jesus had to know their Master and Lord. They had to witness him teach, calm the storm in the midst of their fears and doubts, expel demons, multiply bread, forgive sinners and dine with them.
Like him, they had to go to the villages too to expel demons and cure the sick. And they had to confront their own failings, which binds them with all humanity whom the Lord came to earth to save. Thus, they also abandoned him in the garden of Gethsemane, where one of them betrayed him with a kiss, while their leader later denied the Master thrice. Only after his death did they fully know who it was that they were calling their Messiah and Lord.
Who is Jesus to us?
The same question of Jesus is addressed to us today: Who do you say that I am? Who do we say Jesus is? Jesus is asking us also and inviting us to know him more intimately, that we may follow him more closely and love him more dearly. It is to become disciples of Christ. It is to be one family with God. And the only way to respond to this invitation is to have a deep personal familial relationship with Jesus.
How do we develop a personal relationship with our Lord? We can deepen our knowledge of Jesus by reading the scriptures and letting the story of Jesus unfold and come alive in our lives by orienting our lives with his teachings. We put on the mind and heart of Christ by knowing and imitating how he dealt with sinners, even those who sought his death, how he warned about riches and embraced and served the needy, how he dealt with suffering, persecution, abandonment and betrayal, how he celebrated life and feasted with his friends.
By habitual prayer and contemplation, and communion with God, in solitude, in community and in service to others, we are constantly guided in our daily strivings and we come to know how Jesus would want us to live out what he taught his first disciples in the concrete circumstances of our time.
And in our struggle to know God, only He can show us His true Being. As Jesus told Peter when the apostle professed that the Lord was the Christ, “Blessed are you, Simon Peter. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
By regular communal celebration and liturgical worship, we continue to connect ourselves with Jesus and celebrate his presence in our midst. By validating our own faith experience of God with the experience of others, we assure ourselves that indeed our experience of God is real and not the product of our imagination. Only in knowing our Lord in a deeply personal way can we truly witness to him and proclaim him to others.
Avoid selfish misconceptions of Christ
Yes, only those who know Christ and are part of God’s family can be credible witnesses of their Lord and serve as continuing foundations of Christ’s church.
Without intimate knowledge of God, people who claim to know him but only know him superficially can only misrepresent him. And where we fail to know the person of Christ, our own life too would just be ugly reflections of our narrow-mindedness and our pride.
One acquaintance frequently used the image of Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers at the temple area. For him, Jesus was the perfect example of a law enforcer who unflinchingly applies the law to establish order. But he used the image, and many times unwittingly, to justify his habitual anger and abrasive behavior, his intolerance of people under his authority.
The image of Jesus in the synagogue quoting the words of Isaiah about setting captives free and announcing the good news to the poor was used to present Jesus as a reformer and activist. That view was used to affirm a person’s contempt of the rich and powerful while quietly coveting wealth and clout himself.
Furthermore, the image of Jesus proclaiming the Beatitudes has been wrongly and narrowly understood as passive acceptance of and resignation to the ills of the human condition. Thus, religion is disdained as the opium of society.
Plainly, when we fail to know the real Jesus, we cannot make a good witness of him. We end up preaching our own agenda, not the Lord’s gospel, projecting him in our own narrow image. And so, we cannot solidly build our lives and the life of the people of God upon this weak foundation of inadequate, superficial and even distorted knowledge of the Lord.
Deep knowledge of God is building a family with him wherein shared familiarity with him orients our mind and hearts to his most holy will not only as disciples, but as true sons and daughters of God serving him and caring for one another.
Only then perhaps can we, together with St. Peter and the apostles, St. Paul, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the great company of the friends of God and prophets, confidently confess that Jesus is Christ and Lord. So help us God.