In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 16, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples reply that some say John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet. When Christ presses them further, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter steps forward and answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Christ, responds:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, by my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I build my Church.”
As Simon names Christ, Christ renames Simon. Simon’s recognition of Christ’s identity merits him a new identity, both by name, and by acceptance into God’s family. Simon, once son of Jonah, becomes Peter, child of God, disciple of Christ, the rock of the Church.
Our Christianity—our proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord—brings forth a new identity in all of us. The process first begins at baptism. On our behalf, our parents and godparents echo the sentiments of Peter through a profession of faith while the priest, describes our new identities through the words of the baptismal rite (emphases mine):
“You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”
Not only does the baptismal garment symbolize the state of our souls, freed from original sin, but it also reflects on the nature of clothing as a sign of identity. A priest in his collar, an athlete in his uniform, a mother with a diaper bag slung over her shoulder - what we put on our bodies says something about who we are. During our baptism, we are clothed with Christ - the pure and spotless victim, symbolized by a pure and spotless garment.
The white of our baptismal garments also represents the invitation of Christ to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, social status, or gender. Despite the divisions we impose on one another through our many secondary identities, Christ makes no distinctions among the members of his Father’s house. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians:
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Our primary identity in Christ is universal and unified.
So, what does our identity in Christ mean for us in the day to day? The baptismal rite covers that too.
“With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that [Christian] dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”
St. James puts it a slightly different way:
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
To the best of our abilities, as members of God’s family we must do two things: care and keep.
Care: Be a doer of the word! Who needs your help? Ask God to show you who the orphans and widows are in your life, i.e., who needs you to provide something for them, whether it is material, emotional, or spiritual support. At some point, YOU will be a widow or orphan for someone else. When that time comes, ask God for the humility to accept help.
Keep: Keep spotless your baptismal garment! Avoid the near occasion of sin, and when you don’t, repent and start over. Go to confession, receive the Eucharist, and spend as much time as you can in prayer. Grow close to Christ through your own sanctification.
These directives from the baptismal rite and St. James depend on one another. The closer you are to Christ, the more you will serve his people. The more you serve his people, the closer you are to Christ. Notice that the baptismal rite specifies that you need the help of your “family and friends” to maintain your Christian dignity. You’re not in this alone. You have an entire community of believers behind you. Let’s be doers of the word together.