Behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
Seminary provokes endless crises. For me, these crises of identity are cyclical and sometimes brutal. What the hell am I doing in Lombard, IL, half the country away from my home? Why am I spending all this time and money studying theology, a pursuit that most Americans, and most Christians, have all but given up on? I tell myself that I am trying to be faithful to follow the Spirit, but the precarity of my situation tempts me into the ultimate modern illusion- the choice to name myself.
I can tell myself, I am a future theologian! (This held up until I seriously read Athanasius and Calvin and Barth, and realized how little I had to contribute).
Ok, then maybe I will be a pastor! (A noble calling, but one I may be ill-suited for, given my impatience, anxieties, and general awkwardness with large groups of people).
This cycle goes on and on, but it is not just a matter of sorting out how to spend my time or earn a living – the desperation of mid-life crises causes me to reach out and try to shape my own identity.
After tonight’s Ash Wednesday service, I spent some time reading the French philosopher Louis Althusser. He gives the example of (at least) two individuals in the street, when one yells to another “Hey you there!” Strangely enough, Althusser claims, “the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed.”
This is admittedly complex language to describe a very simple phenomenon we all experience – the experience of being named, the experience of receiving our identity from the world around us. In the moment of being hailed, and responding, we realize ourselves as individuals with an identity in this particular relationship, and in the larger social order.
This is not the way that we as Americans have always learned about identity. We want more freedom – the freedom to be self made and self-sufficient, the freedom to choose our relationships, our religion, our socioeconomic status, our government, our (final) destiny. In short, we want to choose our identity, without coercion, and we want to choose how we will live out this identity in the context of all our relationships. Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way, saying: the story of America is “the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story.” It’s the idea that we get to start from scratch (the ultimate Protestant fantasy!) and that we are capable of choosing the best option from the ones that are presented to us.
Jesus was a real human being. And when he was about my age, I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that he encountered some kind of identity crises. He could have chosen from the options available to him – maybe continue in the family business, maybe join up with John the Baptist, maybe another option not recorded in the gospels.
In this moment, he joins the crowds and goes to be baptized by John. As he came up from the water, a voice called out from heaven: “Hey you there!”
In that moment, Jesus received again his eternal identity as God’s beloved well-pleasing son. He was again received into the story that had been prepared for him. In the wilderness, other stories would be offered to him, and with each he had a chance to choose his own identity. This is the temptation we face as well, perhaps one cast into even sharper relief in the age of modernity and post modernity, where the individual is the center and shaper of reality.
Tonight, as my pastor smudged my forehead with the ash from last year’s palm branches, she whispered “Remember you are dust – holy dust.”
This is why I go to church. Everywhere else, I am sold ways of understanding myself and my relationship to everything else through the lens of capitalism, liberalism, democracy, and all the other competing systems that dominate my context. These forces are not absent in church, but church is one place where I can have my subjectivity shaped towards a deeper reality.
I am dust. I am also holy dust, dust that God has chosen and called beloved. With that name, I can go into the wilderness. With that name, I can resist the temptation to grasp after other identities that promise me ultimacy, and freedom, and power. With that name, I can be relieved of the anxiety that racks those who have come to see themselves and their choices as central and decisive.
Through the Spirit and through God’s people, I continue to receive my identity as holy, chosen, beloved dust.