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The Church Will Prevail

August 23, 2020

The remnants of the temple of Pan with Pan’s grotto. Picture taken by User:EdoM Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/

A reflection for the 21st Sunday, Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings are Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-36 and Matthew 16:22-33.

In the north of Israel, very near the borders with Syria and Lebanon, at the foot of Mt. Hermon, there’s a place called Banias. Banias is the Arabic name for Panias, a city that was built there by the Greeks – hundreds of years before Christ. Panias was dedicated to the Greek God Pan. You may remember Pan from your Greek Mythology. He’s the one who’s half man/half goat and plays the pan flute. He is also the god associated with fertility. The reason why the Greeks built the shrine in Panias is because there is a huge rock face – this massive rock at the foot of the mountain range – and in the rock there’s a massive cave. It’s a cave with a huge entrance and so deep that the ancient Greeks were never able to get to the bottom of it. They believed that this was the entrance to the underworld – the netherworld, literally, the Gates of Hades. They believed that the gods would go in there for the winter so every spring people would go to Panias to perform all sorts of rituals and sacrifices to entice Pan to come back out for the Spring and do his fertility thing. There were multiple temples and statues placed in niches that were carved into the rock face. Out of the cave came a number of springs, which went into the Banias river, which in turn feeds into the River Jordan.

In Roman times, King Herod the Great (that’s the king at the time of Jesus’ birth) gave the city to his son Philip and Philip dedicated it to the Caesar, the Roman Emperor, and re-named it Caesarea-Philippi. But even in Roman times, even though it was not under the Greeks, the place was still a place of pagan worship. People still went there to offer sacrifice to Pan and of course, the Romans worshiped the Roman Emperor, who, for the Romans, was also considered to be a son of a god.

So Caesarea-Philippi was not a place where good, observant Jews would go to. There’s no reason why a Jew would go there, so I am not sure why Jesus ventured up there with his disciples on this particular day. St. Paul tells the Romans that “who has known the mind of the Lord” (Romans 11:34). Well, God only knows why Jesus took his disciples there.

But I can imagine the conversation as they sat there a little out of the city, looking at the huge rock and cave, having their lunch by the river.

Nathaniel says: “This place is crazy. Look at all those temples and look at the king’s palace.”
Philip says, “It’s pretty amazing how they’ve built it all into the rock face. See those niches carved into the rock with all those statues?”
John asks, “What’s that building over there with the goats?”
James answers, ”That’s where the sacrifice the goats to Pan. Then they toss the goats into the cave. They say that in the Spring the water of the river is red with all the blood.”
Thomas says, “I can’t believe that these people think that these God’s are alive. They’re not real. They’re dead!”
James says, “Yeah and the Romans who believe that the emperor is a son of a god.”
“A son of man, more like it.” Adds Thomas.
Andrew says, “Not the Son of Man that the prophet Daniel speaks of.”
The other disciples nod at this because they know their Scriptures and they know what the Prophet Daniel says about the Son of Man.
Jesus then speaks. “Well, you guys talk to people. What do your Jewish friends in Capernaum say? What do they say about the Son of Man?”
Andrew asks, “Like the Son of Man that Daniel speaks of?”
Jesus answers, “Yeah. Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
James says, “They say it’s Elijah or Jeremiah.”
Philip adds, “Some say it was John the Baptist.”
Jesus asks, “And who do you think is the Son of Man?”
Andrew says, “Well, Ezekiel calls himself the Son of Man like 90 times in Scripture.”
Jesus looks at them playfully. “No one says that I am the Son of Man?”
The disciples look at each other not sure how to answer.
Jesus then adds, “Who do you say that I am?”

There’s a moment of silence. Then Simon, quietly, as he looks down into the running water says, “You are the Christ. Not the son of man, but the Son of the Living God.” And pointing at the temples and statues, “Not these gods, but the Living God.”

Jesus smiles. “And I’ll tell you who you are Simon, son of Jonah. I’m going to change your name. You are the Rock.” At this, some of the other disciples snicker because they know how hard-headed Simon was.

Jesus continues, “Not this rock behind me, but the Rock and on this Rock, I will assemble all the people that I will call. And you know what? My assembly of people will prevail. Not like this stuff. A hundred years from now nothing will be here. But my assembly will last and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. And you know what else? You know how the Prophet Isaiah gave the keys of the House of David to Eliakim (see Isaiah 22:20-25)? Well, I am going to give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and whatever you open on earth will be opened in Heaven and whatever you close earth will be closed in Heaven.”

I don’t know if after that there was more conversation, more discussion, more questions or if there was silence. I don’t know if after that the disciples were confused as to why Jesus told them not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah or about who got the keys to Heaven: was it Peter or all of them? I’m sure that was explained later. But I am sure Simon was silent as he processed what had just happened and contemplated his new name: Peter.

But I do know one thing: We know that Peter already at this point has a primacy over all the other disciples. That’s why he is always mentioned by name. He is there at every moment and when other disciples are named, he is always named first. When John arrived at the tomb, he waited for Peter to go in first (John 20:3-9). And it was Peter who preached that first sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-42). We know, historically, that Peter and James were the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem (see Acts 15) and then when Peter went to Rome, he was the leader of the Church in Rome (many early Fathers elude to this fact). And we know that every leader since – every Pope – can be traced right back to Peter and right back to Jesus at this moment at Caesarea-Philippi.

We also know three things about the Church that I want to leave you with:

  1. The Church is the assembly of people that Christ has called. That’s what Jesus would have said to them in Aramaic. It was translated to the Greek Ecclesia, which is the word for Church. Later on St. Paul says that this Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:12–27, Ephesians 5:23 and Colossians 1:18). Don’t ever forget that.
  2. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells Simon that flesh and blood did not reveal to him what he said about the Christ. He did not hear it from others. He did not read it in a book. It was revealed to him by the Heavenly Father. From the first beginnings of the Church, it has been guided by the Holy Spirit. They were going to learn that in a very powerful way at Pentecost. The Church continues to be guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit to this day. If we don’t believe that, there’s no point in belonging to this Church.
  3. The Church will endure forever. If you go to Banias today, there’s nothing there but a bunch of ruins. In a couple thousand years that rock and cave might not even be there. The spring of water doesn’t even come out of the cave anymore.  The Greek and Roman Empires don’t exist anymore. Every single earthly power that has persecuted the Church is no longer here, but the Catholic Church remains. We know that the Church will continue to be persecuted, attacked and ridiculed because Jesus was persecuted, attacked and ridiculed. And we know that every earthly power that will persecute the Church in the future will not last – but the Church will prevail. The Church will endure as long as we need a Church here on earth.

They could close our churches and cancel Mass. They can make Christianity illegal. They could ban the Sacraments. They could burn all the bibles. They could destroy all our statues. They could put all the priests in jail. They could kill all the priests. They could kill all of us, and the Church will still prevail. The Church will still be here because it is the Body of Christ, the Son of the Living God. The Church will prevail because it is guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church will prevail because it is founded by  Jesus Christ, who is The Rock, the sun that never sets, and He founded it, itself, as a rock, as a peg secured in a firm place (Isaiah 22:23), on the one whom Jesus himself made into a rock, Petrus, and every successor of Peter since.

The Church will endure forever.

And nothing will prevail against it.

From → English, Reflections

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