For Richer For Poorer
"Just as with any other person we know, we can answer to the question of who God is only by reflecting on the impact our faith in God has had in our lives, the meaning it has given to our trials and sorrows, the hope that it has infused in everything we have undertaken"
Recently I celebrated the blessing of the wedding of a Nigerian couple with two Pentecostal pastors – Pastor Samson and Pastor Tai- and a number their Nigerian friends. I had braced myself for the ceremony to be longer than usual and was not disappointed - although by African standards, 2 hours was not too bad after all. During my visit to Ghana few years ago, I remember masses which easily lasted 4 hours! And yet, I have to say that I did not see the time pass and it was enormously enjoyable. All of the women at the wedding were spectacularly elegant in their traditional dresses, everyone was very tall, and such a joyful atmosphere!
Pastor Tai gave a terrific sermon. As we were waiting for the bride to arrive, Pastor Samson had discreetly told me it would be wise to suggest to Pastor Tai to keep the length of the sermon to no longer than 30 minutes. That sermon, oh my, was something to watch! Pastor Tai excoriated the audience about the danger of putting money, wealth and social climbing at the top of their priorities. I thought people might take umbrage – and instead they were expressing agreement, often cheering - I loved the regular “Oh yeah”! Pastor Tai could get away with anything because he also was delightfully self-deprecatory and absolutely hilarious.
There was something playful in the air and the couple got slightly carried away – so, at the exchange of the vows, when I dutifully suggested the words “For richer and for poorer”, the bride jokingly said “for richer and for richer”. I hesitated one second, was going to let it pass, but the two pastors behind me (who had known the bride since her childhood and are great friends of her family), interjected audibly and simultaneously: “for richer and for poorer”, everyone laughed, included the couple, the bride corrected herself, and we went on. Pastor Tai referred to this in his sermon and beautifully reflected on how you really get to know someone only when you have shared with him or her not only the joys but especially the inevitable pains and sorrows of life.
I could not help thinking of this when meditating on today’s Gospel. Peter too wanted a wedding “for richer and for richer” without realizing that this would have prevented him from understanding the very meaning of the very confession he had made one minute earlier when he had been praised for giving the right answer about Jesus’ identity.
We are all familiar with the scene from the book of Exodus in which Moses asks the Lord to reveal his identity and hears the answer: “I am who I am”, Yahweh. In a striking reversal of roles, in the exact middle of Mark’s gospel, it is God who asks us the same question about himself: “Who do you say that I am”? (Mk 8:27). I like to see these two scenes in relation to each other in a way similar to what happens with someone we meet for the first time: we ask him his name, inquire about his nationality, family history, jobs, hobbies. This information, this name, do not give us any real knowledge of the person until we have been exposed to her over a long period of time, shared a history with her, been with her in the good and in the difficult times of life. So that, at one point this person can ask us in return: so, now that you have journeyed with me for so long, who do you say that I am, who am I for you? And then we can give an answer that really captures something of who the person really is.
This is why the key element in Jesus’ question to the disciples is the ‘you’, “Who do you say that I am”? The ‘you’ are those who have followed Jesus, lived, shared meals, travelled with him, become his friends, seen him day and night. Just as with one another, with God too we can know who he is not through a definition, a name, a description, but as a result of prolonged familiarity. Thus, Peter’s answer makes sense to us only to the extent that we too have become part of the ‘you’ of the disciples. Just as with any other person we know, we can answer to the question of who God is, who Christ is, only by reflecting on the impact our faith in God has had in our lives, the meaning it has given to our trials and sorrows, the hope that it has infused in everything we have undertaken.
The answer “You are the Messiah” means exactly this. The Messiah, which means the Anointed, is the person who has received God’s anointment, God’s authorisation and investiture to act in his name, to bring decisive change in the history of the world and in the lives of every human being. “You are the Messiah” means: I know that you are God and what kind of God you are thanks to the way I have experienced your presence and action in my life, and the ways in which my life has been different as a result.
This explains why, as soon as the disciples have proclaimed their faith in him, Jesus orders them not to talk about it, not to say anything to anyone. Just as with the designation “I am”, “Yahweh” given to Moses, so the epithets “Messiah” and “Son of the Living God” are placeholders, they stand for the story, the whole story of our relation with God. Jesus forbids the disciples to say anything to anyone because they still did not have the whole story and most importantly they still had not themselves joined in the whole of it, they had been with him “for richer” but not yet “for poorer”.
The names Yahweh and Messiah tell us something about who God is only when we see him “undergo great suffering, rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, killed, and risen from the dead” and, inseparably, we have joined him by denying ourselves, taken up our own cross and followed him: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34).
The beauty of the exchange of vows in a wedding ceremony, of course, is that the ominous “for poorer” and even more so “in sickness” and “till death us do part” take a completely different meaning by the prospect, and the commitment, of dealing with them together, as a couple. This is how St Augustine interprets Jesus’ sentence “Take up your cross and follow me”. It does not mean: if you want to be a Christian you have to suffer. On the contrary, it means: we are bound to have to deal with suffering in our lives, but thanks to our faith, we can change this suffering in “cross” that is into something that we are not carrying alone, because God is sharing with us.
There is a sense in which, in the end, my lovely Nigerian bride was not wrong after all. Thanks to faith, our life does become “for richer and for richer” because Christ not only died and was buried, but he also "rose according to the scriptures". We need the whole story because the last word about Jesus’ identity is not death but life. Ultimately, we will be able to answer fully to the question “Who do you say I am” only when we too will be fully and forever alive.