In today’s Gospel reading, Christ miraculously feeds a crowd of hungry people. The people recognize him as a prophet, and gather to bring him to Jerusalem to proclaim him king. Jesus responds by fleeing to the solitude of the mountains.
Let’s rephrase this telling. A crowd of people, living in a country beset by political strife, gather to march on the capital. They are eager to replace their corrupt, ineffectual, incompetent ruling classes, who spend more time arguing about the minutiae of law than they do responding to the hunger of the people for bread and for justice. They have just seen a man whom they regard as a leader, one with power and legitimate claim to authority, and they long for him to lead their movement, to lead them in their resistance to the evils of their day.
Perhaps this telling hits close to home. Gazing out on the political landscape of this country, how many of us long for justice in the face of leaders embroiled in cruelty, corruption, self-importance, and outright malice? How many of us locate in Christ the supreme example of leadership, and, comparing him to the afflictions of our country now, how many of us channel Jesus in our protestations of this state of affairs? Before I came here, I used to want to work in politics. I even ran for public office. The political environment we face at present has awakened a long-held desire of mine to enter the fray, and the convictions of my faith highlight to me just how much injustice, just how much falsehood, we currently face. If the opportunity presented itself, I too would long to crown Christ.
But Jesus refused the crown. Christ comes to us, apparently, uninterested in leading us in our own movements. Jesus would rather return to the mountains, to solitude, than accept our efforts to enthrone him for ourselves.
This can be disheartening. Equally then as now, we are left with the question, “Why?” We see Christ, the performer of great miracles, wondrous acts, deeds of power, and, justifiably, ask why he doesn’t perform them for us. O Lord, why do you tarry? Why does your justice wait? We look with disbelief, disquietude, frustration, even anger. Why did you feed a crowd for an afternoon, and refuse to feed a nation for a lifetime? Why?
When we look to Jesus, we do see a great worker of wonders. We, like the crowd he fed, see a man capable of great accomplishments. But how did Jesus approach these acts? He often approaches them with hesitation. He seems unwilling to perform them unless moved by great compassion. He laments the faithlessness of a generation that asks these miracles of him. Afterward, he often implores the recipients of his miracles not to tell anyone.
There is one miracle in particular that sticks out to me as not fitting this trope: Christ healing the bleeding woman. The Synoptic Gospels all recount the story. Jesus is traveling to the house of a man whose daughter is deathly ill, to perform a healing. On his way, there is a great crowd pressing in around him and his disciples. In the crowd, there is a woman, who has suffered from constant internal bleeding for years, spending all she has on medical help that has not yielded any results. Unbeknownst to Jesus, she approaches him and touches his clothing, immediately feeling the bleeding stop.
This is not a deed of power, not a wondrous act, in the sense of most of these instances of healing. Jesus didn’t even know it was going to happen until it took place, and after being touched, he asked his disciples “Who touched me?” They’re incredulous, as they’re walking in the middle of a crowd; everyone is touching everyone. But Christ knows something has taken place. The woman comes forward, fearful and trembling, and makes her presence known, telling Jesus of her suffering. His response is this: “Daughter, your faith has healed you.”
The woman approached Christ not as a performer of miracles, not as a doer of great deeds, but as someone whose presence itself was healing. She does not ask Jesus to accomplish some work, but rather, she trusts that an encounter with him will restore her to health. This is the faith that Christ sees in her, the faith that causes Christ to wonder.
We can look to other examples in the life of Jesus to see this theme. Christ comes as a revealer of God the Father, but so too is he revealed by the Father. The two most prominent examples of this are at Christ’s baptism and his transfiguration. Both involve the direct words of the Father from heaven. What is revealed about Jesus in these episodes is not his actions. God does not proclaim Jesus as a performer of miracles, a bringer of justice, a doer of things. Instead, he proclaims Christ’s identity, his being: “This is my Son, my Beloved.”
Jesus reveals this about himself, as well. Famously, he asks a blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” It is an instance of the remarkable sensitivity, concern, availability, and love with which Christ approaches us. But more frequently, more sensitively, more lovingly, he asks of the people around him what or who they’re looking for. These sorts of questions mark major points in his life. When he calls his first disciples: “What are you looking for?” When he is arrested in the garden: “Who are you looking for?” When Mary Magdalene is so distraught outside of Christ’s empty tomb that she does not realize that she is speaking to her resurrected Lord: “Who are you looking for?” These are not questions of action, but of identity.
Jesus goes further, peppering his public ministry with “I am” statements. They sometimes look innocuous to us, but these are deliberate references to the name of God revealed to Moses, Yahweh, “I am that I am.” This points to a deeper mission. Christ comes to save us, to heal us, to feed us. But more deeply, Christ comes to us revealing to us his being and his Father’s being, the eternal existence that is Love itself.
This can be confusing. But God’s revelation of himself to us is cause for joy, because that which is true about God’s nature is true of our own, as well. We, who are created in the image of God, who bear the likeness of God, are defined by our being, too: We Are. We are not means to an end. We are not tools used to accomplish something greater. We are not defined by the performing of a function, however good and noble that function might be. We are rooted in God’s eternal loving being, so that we might have eternal loving being too. This is the Love of God revealed most fully; this is the Love of God to which we are called.
This is why Christ does not show interest in being crowned king; Jesus is already a king. He wears a crown of eternal being, not because of what he has accomplished but because of who he is. He comes into the world, reluctant to perform miraculous deeds of power, because he is reluctant to obscure this truth about God. He wants us to know the truth about God, because it is the only way for us to know the truth about ourselves. What Christ does is important, but more important still is the fact that his actions flow from his identity, from his love, from his being.
The most fearful part of all of this, to me, is in Jesus’s statements about the works of God: “Heaven and earth will pass away.” The great works of God, containing all his other work, will pass away. What chance, then, do our own works have? Is anything we do pointless, worthless, condemned? No. God’s fundamental principle, his self-definition, is being, and God’s works demonstrate that Being is deeply intertwined with love and creativity, to the point where God is described, not as loving, but as Love. God is a doer of deeds, a worker, and from Adam’s first moments in Eden, God calls humanity to works of love and creativity that reflect this nature too. We can and should participate in these works with joy. But the works will fall. The works will cease. The works will pass away. For, while they are good, they do reflect God’s loving being, they are not being, they are not love. And this is our ultimate vocation, our fundamental call from God, the crown that we cannot offer Christ but that Christ offers us; not to do, but to be love.
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