WHO DO YOU SAY I AM?
The gospel passage assigned for Sunday August 24, 2014 is the famous "Confession of Peter" at Caesarea Philippi (Mt. 16:13-20) in which Jesus asks his disciples "Who do people say I am?" They recount the various theories they've heard - some people say you are John the Baptist come back to life, others say some other prophet, etc.
Then, you recall, he asks the much harder question, "And who do YOU say I am?" We can imagine the embarrassed silence, the uneasy shuffling of feet, the sidelong glances. This is an entirely different question from the previous one. Jesus is no longer asking them to be mere reporters, reciting what others are saying. The answer to this second question has to take the form of a commitment.
So Peter, whom Matthew always portrays as the bold leader who jumps in feet first (sometimes literally), Peter takes up the challenge. Leaving aside other people's opinions (which are way off the mark anyway) Peter risks everything by stating his personal and obviously deeply held conviction: "You are the Messiah." (The Greek word is Christos, which can also be translated "the anointed one," or "the Christ.") "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."
See how different this is from saying "Some people say you are the Messiah." The latter is a recitation, merely quoting others' opinions. To recite this sentence requires no commitment on the speaker's part - he or she has no stake in the situation, is not taking any risk as to the truth or falsity of the statement, nor of its consequences in their life.
WORDS THAT CHANGE THINGS
Here's a second example of performative language. The bride and groom are standing at the altar and the minister says, "Do you, Charles, take Agnes to be your lawful wedded wife?" When Charles says "I do!" something happens -- his "I do" is performative - it's called a vow. It creates something that wasn't there a moment ago: a bond, a commitment, etc.
NOT "JUST SAYING"
The latest English translation of the mass texts seems to be suggesting a similar point by re-introducing the word "I" as the first word of the Creed. The Latin "credo" means "I believe," but the earliest English translators wanted to create a feeling of community and common belief, and so translated it in the plural, "WE believe in one God..." The new translation, however, by re-introducing "I" into the statement of the Creed, offers us a challenge if we are willing to accept it.
It's harder to be a mere repeater of faith statements when beginning each statement with "I believe." That pronoun offers at least a reminder that this profession of faith should not be a recitation but a commitment - similar to what Peter said, in contrast to the other disciples' simple reporting of other people's statements.
When I preside at mass I don't say "Let us now stand and say the Creed." Nor do I invite the congregation, "Let us now recite the Creed." I challenge the assembly and myself with the words "Let us now profess our faith." "Professing" your faith is decidedly NOT "just saying" it.
Jesus asks his disciples "Who do YOU say I am?" inviting them to commit themselves and their lives to him. The emphasis should not be misplaced so that the question reads "Who do you SAY I am?" Saying it is easy! That's not Jesus' point at all; he's not just asking his disciples (and us) to SAY something, but rather to take a leap and commit themselves (ourselves), like the groom who "says" the words "I do" or the nun who "professes" her vows and thereby changes her life.
Think about that when you hear Jesus asking you "Who do you say I am?" Behind his question you can hear the real questions: "Are you living your faith?" "Do you act as if I am really the Messiah?"
Remember this the next time you "say the words" of the Creed: "I believe in one God....": you're not "just sayin'", you're professing your faith, you are, it seems to me, implicitly promising to act in a certain way because of those truths you're professing. Otherwise why bother professing them?
(Or at least it's supposed to!)