Secret Identity

The abduction of Elizabeth Smart is well-known, as are many of the details of her story.  In mid-summer 2002, Elizabeth was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City bedroom under cover of darkness by Brian David Mitchell, a deranged, messianic drifter.  She was taken to his camp deep in the woods, where she was brutalized by Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee.  For nine months, Elizabeth endured her captivity, until in March of 2003 she was recognized on a Salt Lake City street and freed.

These broad strokes have been known publicly since the events occurred a decade ago.  But it was not widely known until more recently how flagrantly Mitchell and Barzee paraded through Elizabeth Smart's own neighborhood with Elizabeth in tow.  Scott Carrier, a neighbor and a parent of one of Elizabeth's classmates, reported in Mother Jones magazine, "Through the summer Elizabeth's photo hung in every window of every shop and on every lamp post.  Her father and her family appeared regularly on local, national and international news programs, begging and weeping for her safe return.  It seemed she was hidden somewhere far away, somewhere just beyond the broadcasting spectrum, or like in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy's family calls to her through the crystal ball.  Then, when she was found nine months later...we realized she'd actually been right here in front of us, walking around downtown, reading in the library, eating in fast-food restaurants...They began coming into the city by day, passing within a quarter-mile of Elizabeth's home...And no one figured it out."[i]

Elizabeth has subsequently attested that she would not, she could not, cry out and reveal her name, because she believed Brian Mitchell's threat to kill her and her family.[ii]  Of all those around her, only her captor, the near-demonic Mitchell, knew her name.  But she never forgot who she was.  She knew her identity, even when no one else recognized her.

Halfway through Matthew's gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to identify him.  By that time, Jesus has traveled the countryside preaching hope to hopeless people.  He has extended a healing touch to those cast off by society.  He has told cryptic stories of judgment that seem to be aimed at those in power.  People have begun to whisper about who Jesus might be and what he's up to.  And so, in a side moment, when Jesus is with his disciples away from the crowd, he asks them, "Who do people say that I am?"

The fact is people aren't sure.  The disciples respond that people think Jesus might be John the Baptist reincarnated, or Elijah, or another of the prophets.  So Jesus pursues the question and asks them, "Who do you say that I am?" And Peter--bumbling, brash Peter--responds, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."  Very soon thereafter, Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James and John, and God's own voice from heaven confirms in their hearing the true identity of Jesus.

This is when Jesus' identity is made known publicly and explicitly, when others begin to recognize accurately who Jesus is.  But long before Peter's proclamation is Jesus' own recognition of his identity.  Jesus has known who he is since his baptism, since today's Gospel passage, since John immerses him in water and--to Jesus alone in Matthew's telling, to only Jesus' eyes and ears--the heaven of God opens and God's own Spirit alights upon Jesus, tethering within the creation the Trinitarian connection that has, in truth, existed since before time.  Today, God's own voice names Jesus, saying, "You are my Son, with whom I am well-pleased."

For thirteen chapters, then, from now until Peter's proclamation in the middle of the Gospel, Jesus must walk through the world--including during a trip home to Nazareth on the streets of his own neighborhood--knowing who he is but unable to cry out his identity, unable to share his true nature.  Throughout all that time, he is a stranger to those who purport to love him.  In what must be a cruel irony for Jesus, only the demons he encounters recognize him for who he truly is.

It is a common literary motif: the character who knows his identity but cannot declare it, who must walk through the world hidden in plain sight.  It is a painful thing, difficult to read or watch.  Strider is secretly Aragorn, the heir to the throne of men in Lord of the Rings.  He lives in shadows, conflicted about the discovery of his true name.  Clark Kent is really Superman.  His alternating urges to reveal himself and to remain in disguise so conflict that he removes and replaces his eyeglasses as a nervous tic.

In writing this sermon I almost posed the question, "What would it be like to walk through the world in this way, hidden in plain sight, unrecognized even by those who love us?"  But then it occurred to me that we already know the answer.  Writers return again and again to this notion not because it is tantalizing fiction, but because it is agonizing truth.  We, each of us, travel the streets of our hometowns, the hallways of our workplaces, even the rooms of our very homes, with our true identities unknown to any but ourselves.

Think how often both the accolades and the criticisms you receive seem to you to be spoken about someone else, about some stranger who only vaguely reminds you of yourself.  Consider when your most beloved gazes upon your face, and you know full well that he or she is really looking at an opaque mask.

Remember those times when you believe if the world just knew the real you it would love you and rejoice in you, along with those times when you feel quite sure if the world knew the real you it would recoil in fear and disgust.

Think of the times you want to cry out your identity, to rip Clark Kent's glasses from your nose, to emerge from the shadows and claim your true name.

And admit the irony that the only ones who truly seem to know you--the real you--are your demons: your self-doubts, your anxieties, your weaknesses toward vice.  The demons know your identity, even when no one else does.

Except that today, above all other days, we are reminded that there is more truth than this, greater truth.  On this day of the Baptism of our Lord, we are called to remember into whom we are baptized.  At his own baptism, God spoke to Jesus, and half a Gospel later God spoke to the disciples, saying, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

That only is truly Jesus.  That is his identity.  And in baptism, in this sacrament that rehearses the action to which Jesus consented at the hands of John the Baptist, Jesus' identity becomes our own true selves.  We emerge from the water reborn into him.  Lest we forget, baptism is not primarily about the opportunity to unpack granddad's traditional christening gown or take family photos or eat good cake.  Baptism is the sacrament in which we declare--in which God declares--that we no longer need Clark Kent's glasses.  We no longer need to mute our tongues from declaring who we are.  We no longer need to duck into the shadows for fear of exposure to the world.  Because who we are--who you and I only and truly are--are the sons and daughters of God.  That identity is etched upon us more deeply than any mask.  Its beauty smoothes all ugliness.  Its truth silences the mocking laughter of the demons.

It turns out that even we did not truly know ourselves.  What we secretly thought we were, in both our best and our worst moments, was wrong.  We are neither the expert nor the fraud, the angel nor the monster, the beauty nor the beast.  The truth of us is far simpler and far more glorious.  We are the baptized, bearing the seal of the Holy Spirit on our brows just as the dove alighted on Jesus.  We can walk the streets of our neighborhoods, the hallways of our workplaces, the rooms of our homes--indeed, we can look in the mirror--and say, "Look at me, the real me.  I am a child of God.  I am beloved, and with me God is well pleased."