Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Upon this Rock"

Watching World Youth Day in Madrid on TV this week recalls wonderful memories of the World Youth Day I attended in Germany 6 years ago - and of other Papal events I’ve attended in Rome and during Pope Benedict’s 2008 visit to New York. Among the many wonderful things which one can watch on YouTube, there are some 25 Italian videos of the coronation of Pope John XXIII, on November 4, 1958. Several times during that lengthy ceremony, the Sistine Choir chants Jesus’ words which we just heard in today’s Gospel: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”). In addition to that, today’s entire Gospel account is chanted, not once but twice – first by a Latin deacon, and then by a Greek deacon. I think that’s what called making a point!
Today’s Gospel takes us back in time - from the baroque splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica and the modern papacy to the region of Caesarea Philippi and to the 1st Pope, Peter himself. Caesarea Philippi was situated about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in territory ruled by King Herod’s son Philip. The place is now known as "Banias," a deformation of its pre-Roman name, "Paneas," referring to the Greek god Pan. At the time of Jesus, a fertility cult was thriving in the pagan temple to Pan at this location at Israel’s northern border at the foot of Mount Hermon. That border was obviously a lot easier to cross in Jesus’ time, than it is now; but it was still a border, laden with symbolic spiritual significance.
It was in that faraway, pagan place that Jesus challenged his disciples to answer what is, in some sense, still the basic Christian question: Who do you say that Jesus is? As befits the prominent role he is being groomed for, Peter answers on behalf of the disciples – on behalf of the entire Church: You are the Christ [the Messiah, the Anointed One], the Son of the living God. Not only does Peter proclaim that Jesus is Israel’s hoped-for Messiah, but – in that site sacred to Pan, the son of Zeus – he proclaims Jesus as the Son of the living (that is, the one true) God.
Then, as now, Peter speaks for the Church – not just for his fellow apostles, but for all of us. In response, Jesus assures us that Peter’s profession of faith is not some mere human opinion, one option among many in the global religious marketplace, but a revelation from God – one which Peter himself, at that stage, still probably at best only poorly understood. From such a modest beginning in such an oddly out-of-the-way place, Peter’s profession of who Jesus is, has been the center of the Church’s proclamation – as Peter’s role has since likewise remained central to the Church’s identity and mission.
Fast forward to the baroque basilica built above Peter’s tomb, to where the current occupant of Peter’s office continues to speak - on behalf of the Church for the sake of the whole world. As the Successor of Peter, the Pope serves as the visible source of the unity of the Church across space and time. Across space, “people of every nation, culture, and tongue” (as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer) are “gathered as one,” so that “in a world torn by strife and discord,” we “may stand forth,” as a Universal Church, “as a sign of oneness and peace.” Such a unity across space is, in turn, uniquely possible because of the Church’s unity across time - our unity with Peter in his profession of faith in the Christ, the Son of the living God, whose own victory over death has definitively guaranteed that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against the Church. Our unity across time in professing the ancient apostolic faith of Peter, makes possible our present unity across space as Christ’s Church in the world, which in turn fosters – for both the Church and the world - our future hope for both space and time in the kingdom of heaven.

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 21, 2011

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