What captured my imagination was the elaborate liturgy at the door of the cathedral. Catherine's coffin was carried to the cathedral where her priest knocked three times on the door. The metropolitan bishop opened the door and asked, "Who seeks admission to the Kingdom of God?" The priest answered, "Duchess Catherine ..." and began to rattle of several of her noble titles. The bishop cut him off mid-sentence by saying, "I do not know her" - and he slammed the door! Again, the priest knocked and the bishop opened the door with the same question, "Who seeks admission to the Kingdom of God?" Once again, the priest began to recite a litany of the deceased's titles and the bishop again responded with, "I do not know her" - and slammed the door. A third time, the priest knocked, the bishop answered with the same question, "Who seeks admission to the Kingdom of God?" This time the answer came back, "Catherine - child of God and sinner." The doors swung open with flourish, the incense was thick, the chanting of ancient hymns began and Catherine was brought into the church one last time.
Admittedly, we don't have royal titles in our country, but could you imagine this if it were say, Bill Gates? "Who seeks admission to the Kingdom of God?" "William Gates, founder of Microsoft, chairman of the Gates Foundation, richest man in the world..." "I do not know him!" Rather shocking, eh?
Who are you? Catherine was not her titles as this liturgy clearly reminded the faithful. Who are you? - the question confronting John the Baptist today. Last week we heard about John's ministry through the eyes of Mark - a wild man in the wilderness who eats bugs and honey and wears animal skins. In John's gospel, the religious authorities show up to check him out and investigate his preaching. Now before we religate these pious Jewish leaders to the "bad guy" category, keep in mind that they had a legitimate reason to check out what was happening. Throughout history, across religious expressions, there have always been charistmatic leaders who appear on the surface to be preaching about God but who eventually turn out to be more interested in controlling their followers. We've experienced these types in our time - Jim Jones and the People's Temple members who committed suicide in Guyana, the Aum Shinrikyo led by Shoko Asahara who carried out Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subways, or the Branch Davidians of Waco led by David Koresh. All of these leaders eventually showed that they were not pointing to God but to themselves. The religious authorities in our gospel reading today want to make sure John isn't preaching a message that would lead the people astray.
"Why are you?" they ask John. John knew he was not the Messiah, so that denial was easy. John was clear he pointed to the Messiah. "Who are you then, Elijah?" This was a good guess given John's appearance - the camel hair, wild man look. Perhaps John and Elijah found the same rack at Men's Warehouse! But "no" came the answer from John - he was not Elijah. "Are you the prophet?" "No." "Well then give us an answer" (we need to give the folks at headquarters an answer!) "Who are you?" John replies not with a "who" answer but a "what" answer - "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
In this back and forth dialog, John refuses to get pinned with a label and the expectations which go along with it. Messiah, Elijah, prophet - all had a kit bag of religious expectations that John rejects. Instead, he confounds the authorities with saying he is a "voice" - or a "sound" (either translation is legitimate in the Greek). John cannot be pigeonholed into an easy definition. John is not his title or role. John is the one who points to Jesus.
Who are you? It's a question for us to ponder too. I've been reading Fr. Richard Rohr's book Falling Upward where he describes the spirituality of the two halves of life. The first half is about building the container of identity - who we think we are. That container holds our achievements, our roles, and titles. It also holds our shame, shortcomings, and failures. But the container is not who we are - and our second half of life is about getting out and beyond the container. The container is important - but not of ultimate importance.
Like John, and like Catherine, we are not our titles, achievements, or roles. We are not our shortcomings, our sins, and our brokenness either. That's why the third answer given by the priest that cold winter morning in St. Petersburg still intrigues me - "Child of God and sinner." Child of God reminds us that we can rest in the assurance of the love of God which cannot be earned or merited - it just is. Sinner reminds us that we are broken, but regardless of our brokeness, it is God's deepest desire to heal us and reconcile us through his son, Jesus Christ. As we continue our Advent journey, ponder again the question "Who are you?" and rest assured that "Child of God and sinner" is good enough ... good enough for all of us.