Saturday, September 15, 2012

At the Foot of Mount Hermon

The setting for this Sunday’s Gospel account [Mark 8:27-35] is an area on the northern border of Israel and Syria at the foot of Mount Hermon now known as “Banyas,” a variation on the Greek word “Panias,” suggesting a place sacred to the pagan god “Pan.” In the Gospel, it's called the villages of Caesarea PhilippiMark begins by telling us that Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. In other words, they left their familiar surroundings and went again into pagan, Gentile territory. Unlike so many other historic sites in Israel, where a church stands to commemorate some biblical event, nothing of the sort marks this site. The absence of any church or shrine and the persistence of the area’s pagan name evoke its original character as a pagan, worldly place. (In Jesus’ time, it had a pagan temple and a fertility cult was thriving there. The one time I visited the site, two decades ago, the only obvious activity there was an Israeli army unit enjoying a picnic.)
Having brought them to that pagan, worldly place, Jesus, we are told, paused there to ask his disciples what was maybe the most important question they had ever yet been asked - the question that in some form anyone who purports to be a Christian must also ask and answer.
This episode comes at the midpoint of Mark’s Gospel, more or less at the midpoint of Jesus’ public life. It also seems to be something of a midpoint in the disciples’ own experience – in their gradual growth in understanding Jesus’ true identity - their understanding of who he is and of what who he is must mean for them.
Jesus had first asked: Who do people say that I am? And, just as one would expect if one were to ask that same question today, Jesus got a variety of  different answers. Then as now, Jesus meant different things to different people, all of whom naturally tried to fit him into their already existing ways of thinking. Jesus then revised his question to focus directly on his special group of followers: But who do you say that I am?
Peter, already anticipating his role as leader of the Church, answered for them all – and for us all – You are the Christ (in other words, the Messiah, the One anointed by God).
What a wonderful, inspiring insight – one for which Peter has always been remembered and honored!  If only the story had ended there! But the conversation continued; and, as the rest of the story shows, Peter did not yet really understand what it actually meant that Jesus is the Christ, because he didn’t yet really understand the kind of Messiah Jesus actually is. So, Jesus responded to Peter’s initial insight with the seemingly strange command not to tell anyone about him, followed in fairly short order by his even more surprising - shockingly stern - reproof to Peter: Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.
Yet, why should any of this really surprise us? Like Peter, don't we all want Jesus to be the kind of Messiah that we want? Don't we all want to see him through a lens of our own imagining, thinking not as God does, but as human beings do? There’s really nothing so surprising about that at all. Every age and every culture, that has concerned itself with Jesus at all, has done the same. So has every artist and every author, who has portrayed Jesus. And, to be fair to Peter, there was after all nothing in what he had been taught that would have led him to expect – let alone want – a Messiah would suffer greatly, be rejected, and be killed
Of course, we Christians are all quite accustomed to the idea, and we read certain Old Testament passages - like Sunday's 1st reading [Isaiah 50:5-9a], an excerpt from Isaiah's 3rd "Song of the Servant of the Lord," and the even more familiar 4th "Song of the Servant of the Lord," that the present liturgy assigns to Good Friday [Isaiah 52:13-53:12] - as "predictions" of the Messiah's passion. But nothing in the texts themselves mentions the Messiah. Nothing in the texts themselves would have led one to interpret them as predicting a crucified Christ. Only after the fact could the Church interpret those and other Old Testament passages that way - a process initiated by Jesus himself in his exegetical Easter Sunday homily to the two disciples en route to Emmaus, in which he explained that it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things, and, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures [Luke 24:26-27]
But this was, after all, just the midpoint of the disciples’ journey – a journey first into a recognition that Jesus is the Christ and then a fuller understanding of what that actually means – a journey that will take them with Jesus to the cross and then to an empty tomb.
The first several centuries of the Church’s history were characterized by a series of serious quarrels and debates about who in fact Jesus is – in relation to God and in relation to us - and exactly what all that really means for us. The complex formulas we recite every time we say the Creed reflect in part the way those disputes were eventually resolved. We today are the beneficiaries of those quarrels and debates and the Creeds they created in order to facilitate our fuller understanding of Jesus.
Every time we recite the Creed, especially when we do so together, as we do, for example, when we say the Nicene Creed every Sunday at Mass, we acknowledge who Jesus is and we commit ourselves to make the same journey in faith that Peter and the disciples had to make - with Jesus to the cross and then to an empty tomb.
Who do you say that Jesus is? Who do I say that Jesus is? Who do we together say that Jesus is? He constantly asks that question of each of us individually and of all of us together – not because he is looking for a novel answer (Christianity is about fidelity not creativity), but precisely because he has already answered it for us with his cross and resurrection.

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