A Case of Mistaken Identity

Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night tells the story of twins, Viola and Sebastian. Shipwrecked, they become separated. On reaching land, Viola dresses as a young man, calls herself Cesario – and falls in love with the Duke Orsino. However, Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia. But Olivia falls for Cesario (who’s really Viola). And then Sebastian arrives. A flood of confusion and mistaken identity. Spoiler alert… Sebastian marries Olivia; Viola reveals she’s really a girl and marries Orsino. A tale of hilarity and heartbreak amidst the end of the Christmas season.

With Christmas now past, we recall another tale of mistaken identity. January 6th is known as The Feast of the Epiphany. A day to remember the visit of the three kings… not that we know how many they were (it’s three gifts, not people)… not that we know exactly who they were either (kings… wise men [and women too perhaps]… the Magi [a Greek word meaning astrologers])… and, sorry all you Nativity Play lovers, they weren’t at the manger in the stable either (not that it was a stable…). Jesus was probably a toddler by the time they arrived.

Nonetheless, whatever their identity, they are important figures in the Jesus story. Bringing gifts of gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship on earth; frankincense (perfume or incense) as a symbol of his deity; and, foreshadowing the significance of his death, the embalming oil of myrrh. They had searched for the Messiah and they had found him. It was their Epiphany moment – and their gifts reflected Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

In a previous post, we considered making time in the Christmas period to think about what you’ll be searching for in the year to come. Maybe you had an epiphany moment? (OK, maybe not… sometimes they do take time to find.)

‘New year, new job’ is a widely used mantra. Indeed, January is the most popular time of year for both vacancies and job searching. For many people, work is a large part of life and integral to their identity. Work  occupies many hours, weeks, months and years of our lives. Having a job provides something to talk about and perhaps impress others with. We often define ourselves by the job we do. (By the way, do pray for workplaces using the new feature on this site.)  

Yet, for people without paid employment, those hours, weeks, months and sometimes years are often very empty. There is nothing to talk about. If we have no job we may feel we have no identity. Instead of being a somebody, we are a nobody.

‘In the world around us,’ writes Tim Chester:    

Activity (what we do) -> Identity (who we are)

‘In other words, who I am is based on what I do.’ He continues, ‘The grace of God turns the world’s ways upside down:          

Identity (who I am) -> Activity (what I do)

‘In Christ I am someone who does good works. My good works don’t make me who I am.’

In his reflection for the New Year, Martin Gee also challenged our sense of mistaken identity: ‘It matters a great deal how we work; perhaps it matters less what our work is.’

Or as Pope John Paul II put it, ‘The basis for determining the value of human worth is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.’

Our identity is a complex thing. At times, we may feel a bit like the Epiphany travellers and not sure who we are. Or like Shakespeare’s Viola, we try to be someone we’re not. I know my sense of my own identity is different now to 40, 20, even 10 years ago. Our identity develops as we grow and mature – and diminishes if we’re always trying to be the person we used to be… or think we ought to be…

Maybe there’s an epiphany moment in there somewhere.

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