“On This Rock…” Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
I recently read this in a January 17th article from CNN:
Religious historians say we haven’t seen so many church schisms since 19th-century debates over slavery, when denominations split into Northern and Southern branches. Protestants, born of a split with the Catholic Church, are pretty well-practiced at spiritual break ups. There are 47,000 Christian denominations in the world, by one estimate, including dozens of Methodists branches in the United States. Protestants gonna protest, you know? According to some historians, the term “mainline” derives from the suburbs outside Philadelphia, which, like a lot of towns in America, built churches along its major thoroughfares, aka the “mainline.” But mainline Protestant denominations have declined for decades. Episcopalians and Presbyterians dominated American life in the 20th century. They were old, established and largely centrist. The pastors and church leaders considered themselves “custodians of the culture,” and for many years they were.
And then the culture changed.
They’re not alone. The Roman Catholic Church has its issues as well. Jesuit Father John Kavanaugh, S.J. relates the following conversation he had with a fellow priest:
“What’s happened to the church? The last council seems to be the work of the devil.” The words still stay with me, although I heard them from an older priest many years ago.
He died not long after, and I often wonder what he would think if he were still alive. The apparently serene and steady church he once knew, that ark of sure safety, has been sailing troubled waters, to say the least.
As for Peter’s ark, that church, our church, how often it neared disaster: in the shadow of imperial armies, under threats of martyrdom and flame. Divisions are so stark and sharp. One invites complete perplexity by daring to read conservative and liberal Catholic publications in the same sitting. The demons of the one pose as angels for the other. Actions judged sinful by some Catholics are called virtuous by others. The papacy of Pope John Paul II inspired pride, hope, and trust for some, bitter disappointment—even anger—in others. Vocations to the priesthood and to the once-thriving religious congregations dwindle, despite the stronger showing among communities that are more conservative or “orthodox.
“You are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it.”
If we even halfway agree with this account, what might we think of Christ’s words to Peter? This text, understood both in terms of papal primacy and the church’s durability, surely challenges the faith of the contemporary Catholic.
But when has it not been so?
What kind of “rock” was Peter when only moments after his great profession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus would say, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me”? (Mt 16:23). That was only the beginning of Peter’s reign which has, of course, included braggadocio, denials, betrayals, reconciliations, victories, later struggles with Paul, and disappointments with his people.
As for Peter’s ark, that church, our church, how often it neared disaster: in the shadow of imperial armies, under threats of martyrdom and flame, in the depths of dark ages, infidelities of monks, scandals of popes, in the great wounds of schism, the slaughter of religious wars, the unraveling of the priesthood, the selling of bishoprics, the seductions of fascism, Communism, and capitalism.
Yet doom was not our destiny.
Through all of history’s storms, despite infidelities, diminishments, and failure, the church has carried in its womb, to be born over and over again in scripture and the Eucharist, the Christ who asks of us, whether pope or peasant, “Who do you say I am?” From Borgia palaces to the huts of Connemara, in the convents of Lisieux and in the slave ships of Cartagena’s harsh harbors, on Korea’s crosses or Colorado’s mountain hermitages, the answer was given which made Peter a rock and the church an ark: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
So this brings us to Jesus and the dicisples in Caesarea-Philippi. Caesarea-Philippi was located about 30 – 35 miles north-east of the Sea of Galilee.
It had a long history. It was initially founded by Alexander The Great in the 3rd Century B.C. Worship in the temples to the Greek God Pan and Zeus were central to this city’s existence. during the time of the Romans, Herod Phillip II (son of Herod the Great) built in this area around the time of Christ. He names it for himself and dedicated it to Caesar, hence the name Caesarea-Philippi.
This area was a den of iniquity. Las Vegas at it’s worst couldn’t compare.
The temple on the left of the picture above-left was dedicated to the God Pan. Pan was the god of nature of mountain wilds, rustic music. He was also companion of the nymphs and often affiliated with sex because of his fertility and the season of spring. The courtyard to the right of the Temple of Pan was, in fact, the courtyard of the Nymphs. The temple further to the right was dedicated to the God Zeus. the structure off of the corner of Zeus’ temple was a worship site where debauched rituals associated with worship of Pan were performed.
Caesarea-Philippi was located near what is today Mount Hermon. The cliffs, in front of which the city was built, were part of this geographical range. It is a massive rock. Notice the cave on the above-right hand picture. That cave was filled with water. Sacrifices were tossed into the hole in this cave. If the blood from the sacrifices appeared in the pool of water in front of the Temple of Pan, people felt that the sacrifice was not accepted by Pan. If the blood did not appear, the sacrifice had been accepted.
The cave was know as “The Gates of Hades.” The the water from the springs around this area are actually the headwaters of the River Jordan.
Ok, so why does Jesus bring his disciples here?
This place was all about gods and kings. It was named in honor of Caesar. Temples here were built to the gods. The builder was a king. In effect, Jesus is saying, “They’re all frauds. I AM the Kyrios.” The blood and water currently in the Jordan River will not be that of pagan sacrifices. The blood will be from the Sacrifice of the Lamb and the water will be for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus calls Simon “The Rock” in front of this massive rock. Jesus states that “the ‘Gates of Hades’ will not not prevail against what I will begin and you will build.”
Jesus knew that His Church would be attacked and would experience troubled times. We see this early in the Church’s history. A few hundred years later (6th Century), in “The Moral Reflections on Job,” Pope St Gregory the Great writes about Fights Without and Fears Within.
The saints are caught up in a turbulent war of troubles, attacked at the same time by force and by persuasion. Patience is their shield against force (from outside the Church), and doctrine makes the arrows that they shoot against persuasion (from inside the Church).
See the skill with which they prepare themselves for both fights. The perversity within, they straighten out and teach and correct. The adversity without, they face and endure and suppress. They despise the enemies that come from outside to attack them, they resist them and stop them from subverting others. But to the weak and feeble citizens within they give compassion, afraid that they might otherwise lose the life of righteousness completely.
Let us look at St Paul, the soldier of God’s army, as he fights both enemies: as he says, quarrels outside, misgivings inside. He lists the enemies he has to resist: danger from rivers and danger from brigands, danger from my own people and danger from pagans, danger in the towns and danger in the open country, danger at sea and danger from so-called brothers. He lists the weapons he fires against them: I have worked and labored, often without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty and often starving; I have been in the cold without clothes.
Let no-one be unsettled by the present troubles: as you know, they are bound to come our way.
This is something characteristic of the righteous. Just because they suffer pain themselves it does not stop them caring for the needs of others. They grieve for themselves and the adversity they face but they still give the needed teaching to others. They are like some great doctor who is struck down by sickness: they endure their own wounds while giving healing medicines to their patients.
I was listening to a podcast from Detroit Father John Riccardo. What he said reminded me about something I read concerning the Coat of Arms of Pope Pius X. We recently celebrated two Marian feast days: The Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary and The Memorial of Queenship of Mary. Pope Pius was responsible for both. At the bottom of Pius’ Coat of Arms is an anchor in water. This represents not only hope but the solid assurance of the faith, and continued existence, of the Church. This is evident even as the Church navigates stormy seas. Father Riccardo says that this hope is not optimism. We have very little to be optimistic about today. The Church is about so much more. It is about confidence. We have confidence because Jesus is Lord. The Church prevails because the Church is built on the Rock of Peter. “And the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”
It’s Jesus and His Church working together. It’s about Jesus Christ: fully divine – fully human…. just like His Church.
We come to know Jesus … as disciples on the path of life, following behind him. … This is a work of the Holy Spirit, who is a great worker: he is not a union organizer, he is a great worker. And he is always at work in us: and he carries out this great work of explaining the mystery of Jesus, and of giving us the mind of Christ.
Pope Francis, Meditation in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, February 20, 2014.