Today is St. Bede’s day. Bede was given as a child oblate to his monastery in about 678 or so at the ripe age of seven. He led a quiet monastic life, devoting himself to praying the office, studying the scriptures and writing. Bede is best known as the author of “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” a history of the English Church and people up to the year 729.
I’ve been reading another English ecclesiastical history lately, the just-published “Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch. McCullough gives Bede a lot of credit for the existence of the English as a distinct nationality. Bede, in the early 8th century, was writing at a time when Britain was emerging from an incoherent condition of tribes and small kingdoms. By the 10th century England was a coherent unit with a single monarchy—and a distinct national identity. The ideology of a unified kingdom of England, according to McCullough, “was fuelled by the way in which Bede had depicted a single race called the English.” [McCullough p339] The way Bede told the story of the emerging English Church helped greatly to solidify the notion of a coherent English national identity. In the telling of things that were old, he helped create something new—bringing out treasures old and new as the parable puts it.
National identities can be cultural treasures. The English identity that the Venerable Bede helped to articulate has been a jewel in the crown of the human enterprise. The English people have made enormous contributions to the human enterprise in literature, the arts, in political theory and in countless other ways. And so it is with many other national identities, each with its own ethos, each with its own particular way of being human on this planet. And, often, linked with a particular flavor of Christian religion. The notion of being Greek has a lot to do with being Greek Orthodox. The notion of being Russian has a lot to do with being Russian Orthodox. A sense of Italian or French or Spanish national identity has a lot to do with being Catholic—at least until fairly recently. And so forth.
The gospel we just heard compares the Kingdom of Heaven to the ingathering of fish of every kind. The Feast of Pentecost, which we celebrated Sunday, was originally a Jewish celebration of the ingathering of crops. And so, metaphorically, an ingathering of peoples, peoples of many nations. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and Libya—and so on, we read about in the Pentecost story. Multiple nations, multiple identities.
A question emerges: what is a mature Christian understanding of national identity? Or, for that matter, what is a mature Christian understanding of any number of ways we identify ourselves? As we fish of every kind are gathered into the Kingdom, how do we understand the particularities of our individual identities—whether they be national or otherwise?
Pentecost in the Book of Acts the Church is the ingathering of people from many nations. But the point is that a new identity is being created in Christ. Elsewhere we read: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come.” [2 Cor. 5:17-18] 1 Peter [2:9] tells us we’re a “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” In language borrowed from Exodus, 1 Peter tells us that God’s people are all those who find a new identity in Christ. Being in Christ is a new national identity, as it were.
And that “nationality” is primary. For a Christian, being Christian is our primary identity. Being American or English or Italian or Russian or whatever is secondary. The primary loyalty of a Christian is to Christ; the primary identity of a Christian is as a Christian. The Christian is to sit lightly to his or her national identity—or, for that matter, to any other identity.
On Sunday, the day of Pentecost, many of us renewed our baptismal vows. Each renewal of baptismal vows is a summons: a summons to a renewed sense of who we are. A sense of personal identity rooted, grounded in love [Eph. 3:17], rooted and grounded in Christ’s own being, rooted and grounded in God’s own essence. We may be American or French or Chinese or whatever. But if we are in Christ, he is our foundation. We may be male or female, Jew or Greek (as Paul puts it), but in Christ, he himself is our fundamental identity.
The comprehension of this reality can be a life’s work. In lived experience, personal identity can be very fluid, shifting over time and from place to place. Our conscious sense of identity can be highly situational. At the ball park we’re most conscious of being Red Sox fans, or fans of whatever. In our place of work, we may be most conscious of being in charge, or not in charge. At home we may be most conscious of being mom or dad or sister or brother. Traveling abroad we may be most conscious of being American.
Personal identity can often seem in flux, and yet as Christians we have a place to come back to. We’re called back to a sense of being grounded in Christ’s own being. How we understand, how we appropriate our personal identity in Christ is a highly individual thing. We may grow in this understanding over time, in incremental ways. It may come to us as an occasional insight in moments of spiritual clarity. We may experience considerable confusion as we navigate between our various identities. And yet the center is Christ himself.
Now there’s nothing wrong with any of our particular identities, whether they be national or professional or relational or whatever. They are perfectly natural. The problem with these identities is 1) they are unstable and 2) they are too small. Even national identities are unstable and change over time. What it means to be American today is not what it meant fifty years ago (tell that to the Tea Party). What it means to be English is not what it meant fifty years ago, let alone what it may have meant to St. Bede. Professional and relational identities are notoriously unstable, they are shifting sands.
It is only Christ himself who can give us an identity large enough. Only Christ can bestow upon us an identity expansive enough for the fullness of our humanity. And so he calls us to something new, something large. Something new and always renewing; something large and always expanding. Only that which is newest and most expansive is good enough for the Kingdom. And so, what he calls us to is his own being, his own essence. Into his marvelous light, his own self.
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