What is in a name? The names we have for things, the way we name things, reveal a lot about a language and a culture. When I worked up in Winnipeg, Canada as a missionary, working in soup kitchen and food bank for two years, many of the homeless and street people I served were members of the native American Ojibwe tribe. I had the opportunity to learn some of the Ojibwe language. Ojibwe has many words for the weather and the environment, since describing the weather and the land was important to survival on the harsh Canadian prairies. English has only one word for snow, but Ojibwe has words for different kinds of snow: soft snow, wet snow, and crusty snow. I distinctly remember one word I learned – gakapiganianquadinaguagin – that's one word – and it means “it's bone-cracking cold outside.” Having survived several frigid Canadian winters, I understand why that word exists in their language. It the middle of our hot and humid Mississippi summer, that word seems like it describes a different planet, doesn’t it? The Ojibwe words for animals were very descriptive as well: their word for chipmunk literally translates into “the animal that has spots between its stripes.” I learned a lot about the Ojibwe people and culture from the words and names their language had for different things.
Today, Jesus asks about the names that the crowds and the disciples have for him. The names we have for people and things not only give us the power to describe them, but names help us define people and things in our lives. The names others call us, the names that we call ourselves, give us our identity and can set up boundaries for who we are and for what we do. These names can either limit us or reinforce us. Today's Gospel tells us of the high opinion that the crowds have for Jesus, how they identify him with their greatest religious leaders, in seeing Jesus as John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets from ancient Israel who has come back to life. Jesus wonders if those are the only names they have for him, or if there is any other way they identify him, so he rephrases the question, asking them what each one of us must answer for ourselves: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answers the question in a profession of faith: You are the Christ of God – you are the Messiah! Even though Peter understood Jesus' true identity through this statement of faith, he still had a lot to learn about what his identity was all about. He would have to realize that the Messiah wouldn't be a powerful military and religious leader who'd lead Israel back to glory, but rather that he would be a servant to others who suffer greatly in order to the redeem the world.
Just as Peter and the other disciples still had to learn about Jesus, we also are on a life-long journey that challenges us to grow in our faith and in our relationship with Christ. As children, we probably learned images or names for Jesus, such as the Light of the world, the Son of God, and the Good Shepherd. These names and images are important, especially as we grow in our understanding of Jesus and of our faith. As we grow up and mature as human beings, some of us may cling to the images and names of Christ we had as children, refusing to go any further. Yet, to grow in our faith, we're challenged to move beyond the images and names we have for Christ, to grow in our relationship with him and to walk with him every day of our lives. As Jesus tells us in the Gospel, we must take up our cross daily and follow him, in effect losing our lives for the sake of Christ and for the sake of our faith.
Our life of discipleship, our relationship with Christ, is not occasional or part-time, it is not just attending the obligatory mass once a week and doing acts of Christian charity when they fit into our schedules. Losing our lives for his sake is our full-time calling as his disciples: it's for all of us, not just for a few specially selected martyrs or saints.
You know, the Muslim tradition has a list of 99 names of God, which they pray on a set of beads similar to our rosary beads, in which they identify the different attributes and characteristics their faith sees in God. Likewise, in Christianity, we also have so many different names that we assign to Jesus. This week, maybe we can all bring to our minds the names and images that we personally have for Christ in our lives – perhaps we can even write them down to think about them in a more tangible way. Think about what those names and images tell you about your relationship with Christ, about how you view Christ interacting in your life and with the world. What can we do to mature and grow in the images and names we have for Christ, in the way we relate to him and befriend him in our life of faith?