Let me start with a poem by J. Janda entitled, Jesus Speaks:
I make everything you see;
I make everything you hear;
I make everything you touch and taste and smell …
… to surprise you!
But if you don’t open your eyes
and you don’t open your ears
or taste things, or touch things, or smell things
… well then you will never know me.
All that I do is to show my love for you.
In German, a “Wiesen” is a large meadow. Poller Wiesen is a large, long, grassy area on the East side of the Rhine River in Cologne, Germany. It’s a lovely park just down from the famous Cologne Cathedral. It was there, on August 18, 2005 that Pope Benedict XVI greeted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to World Youth Day. He arrived in typical Rhine River style, on the top deck of a river cruise ship surrounded by young people.
I was on the bank enjoying an ice cream (a chocolate covered vanilla ice cream bar – yes I still remember it) when the Holy Father’s ship pulled up and stopped – right in front of us (What a surprise!). I thought it would have been cool if he had disembarked and joined in a little Frisbee toss or played some soccer (excuse me, “football”) that was happening on the shore next to the boat, but the Holy Father prudentially decided not so surprise us that way.
During World Youth Day – Germany, Pope Benedict gave a number of talks, homilies and reflections. One phrase that he used that day on the Rhine River, however, has continued to stay with me over the past 9 years….
“To all of you I appeal: Open wide your hearts to God, (Here’s the phrase): Let yourselves be surprised by Christ! (Apostolic Journey to Cologne on the Occasion of the XX World Youth Day Celebration. “Welcoming The Young People” – Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Cologne, Poller Wiesen. Thursday 18 August 2005)
Let yourself be surprised by Christ!
Let’s look at today’s Gospel reading (21st Sunday of Ordinary Time). First, some background. Jesus lived at a time when there were numerous religious, numerous sects, numerous gods. The god of the Israelites was seen as just one god among many. So Jesus and the disciples find themselves in the area of Caesarea Philippi. The disciples had come back from their mission of preaching in villages. He asked them – casually – who people think he is. This is actually a big deal because, in a land of many gods, this is the first big test Jesus has given His disciples about His real identity.
They laugh boyishly and give the answers they have heard. They obviously regard such guesses as absurd.
“Believe it or not, some think you are John the Baptist returned from the dead!”
“The ones I talked to said you were the prophet Elijah! It was hilarious!”
“A few of them said you are Jeremiah or one of the other prophets! They just don’t know what to make of you.”
Laughter all around.
Quick as a wink, before they can get their feet on the ground, Jesus asks, “And what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Eyes wander. Laughter becomes a cough. Feet scuff. Without warning they are facing the most intimate and serious question they have ever been asked in their lives. Not even they themselves know what they will answer. Faces turn red.
Jesus has surprised them. In their multi-cultural, multi-religious world, Jesus has asked them to chose whether they believe that He is THE ONE or just one god among many gods. Are they ready to buy in? Is is possible that they are not sure? How can they convince themselves, after this surprise question, that Jesus is who He claims to be?
Jesus was a charismatic leader, teacher, prophet and healer. But above all, JESUS IS the very reality of God’s initiating love, present in the world in human form, ready to share itself as soon as anyone is ready to receive him. And that is the “surprise.” How does Jesus prove this? By surprising people who take a chance and follow Him for awhile and see what other surprises can occur.
Recall the times when Jesus said to the people he cured, “Your faith has healed you.” (see, for example, Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Mark 10:52, Luke 7:50). This seems like an error. It was Jesus, not their faith, that cured them. Right?
But all those whom Jesus cured had FIRST opened themselves a little, or enough, to have at least the beginning of a true relationship with him. Jesus’ cures were never just a matter of him acting on His own, pushing His healing power on others. Healing was never forced upon anyone. Jesus never forced himself, or a relationship with Him, upon anyone. Healing was able to take root and occurred because God’s personal love – in the person of Jesus – was first offered and then was sought, asked for and received into their hearts and souls in response to the Holy Spirit sent from God. Surprise, surprise! I’m healed!
Let me paraphrase a quote from another pope, Pope Francis:
When considering and trying to answer for ourselves the question, “Who do YOU say that I am” for ourselves, we find that we are disciples on the path of life and, on that path, we follow behind Christ. And how we come to know Jesus …is through the work of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is always at work in us by carrying out the great work of explaining the mystery of Jesus – how Jesus surprises us.
Audio version of homily is here: