Last week, while conducting a retreat for youth at Sts. Mary and Martha monastery, we concentrated on the topic of “Who Am I?” It seemed to me an appropriate topic for an age where youth are frequently struggling with issues of identity. They live in a socially dangerous world – the cruelty of young teenagers towards one another can be brutal – thus it is not an age of risk-taking. Young people tend to find groups to which to belong almost as a survival tactic. If you can find a group to protect you then perhaps survival is possible. The frightful consequences of the “politics” of youthful society have made frontpage news far too often in the past years. We can discuss and blame any number of factors for the “Columbines” in our culture, but for every violent case that makes the news, there are thousands of “non-violent” cases where social brutality has done its share of emotional damage.
I suspect this is not a modern phenomenon – simply a phenomenon associated with an age-group within our culture. School was not a safe place when I was there in the 60’s.
Given that sort of context, how does a young person ask questions about personal identity? Becoming who you were created to be is an essential part of spiritual life. This is not a matter of “navel-gazing,” but of coming to know the unknowable God. As we know Him, we will know ourselves (“for our life is hid with Christ in God” Colossians 3:3).
One of the Biblical characters we studied in order to think about this question of identity was Moses. St. Gregory of Nyssa used Moses’ life as a model for the Christian life in his classic The Life of Moses. It has marvelous imagery that can direct the heart at any age. Born into a dangerous world (his own birth and the birth of Christ parallel each other with the hatred of a ruler directed towards infants and a miraculous deliverance). Moses, of course, has the ironic childhood of adoption into the Pharoah’s family. When I transfer the circumstances of his life into a contemporary setting all I can imagine is deep confusion. So Moses the Hebrew-Egyptian eventually comes to face his true birth only to find himself now the enemy of Pharoah and an exile from both Hebrew and Egyptian homes.
It is very telling that when he settles with the family of Jethro, a priest of Midian, marrying his daughter, Zipporah, he names his first child, Gershom [stranger], saying, “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22). It is a phrase that many people – particularly young people – could claim as their own. But it is in this state as stranger that Moses first encounters the God of his fathers. In the miracle of the burning bush God reveals Himself to Moses as “I Am That I Am,” or as it reads in the Greek text, “The One Who Exists.”
Knowing the unknowable God is the beginning of Moses’ discovery of Moses as well. And so it is for us all. To know the meaning of our own existence it is necessary to know the One Who Exists. This becomes far more clear for us as Christians when we stand on this side of God’s self-revelation and understand that the One Who Exists is made known to us in Jesus Christ. Thus in the dismissals of our services the priest intones, “He Who Is is blessed, even Christ our God…”
Moses’ recognition of himself as a stranger seems linked with the revelation of God to him. They remain side by side in the Scriptural account of his life. For ourselves we frequently struggle along with the assumption that we do know who we are. We are in a culture that markets identities. Of course, nothing that is marketed is actually a true identity – they are simply the masks worn by the false self. It is in first knowing that we do not know ourselves that the revelation of God becomes possible to us.
There are, of course, spiritual practicalitites in the service of Holy Baptism. We exorcise those who come for Baptism because demons are real. But it also is an assault on the false images under which we have lived and labored. We have to renounce Satan and all his works and all his pride, finally spitting on them, before we turn to God and embrace Him. In this we receive new life and the only life and identity that matter – ourselves in the image of God, redeemed, accompanied by angels and restored to right relationship with He Who Is. Thus we renounce the false self that has served false gods in order to serve the true and living God in the truth of our existence which is now revealed to us in Christ.
St. Gregory of Nyssa would take this same story of Moses and extract from the entirety of it the revelation of our life in Christ. For a group of youth last week, we took only this first portion. We looked at Moses the stranger – doubtless a comfort to us in our own strangeness – and saw how he came to know the truth of his existence. The pattern has not changed – as the God who gives us the revelation of ourselves in Him has not changed.