21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - The Faith on which the church is built and grows
One of the nick-names for the Holy Land is “The Fifth Gospel” - meaning that the land itself - the geography and topography provide a context that explains or gives deeper meaning to the biblical text. The land itself is an important part of telling the story of Jesus. Mountains, plains, lakes, rivers, seas, roads and other structural features and place names that are referenced in the biblical text provide a backdrop that “set the stage” for the biblical event and add great significance to what is being said in the text. These references would have been well-known in Jesus’ time and to people of that culture but are often lost on us. It is for this reason (and this happened to me when I went to the Holy Land) that the scriptures “come alive” in a new way when one goes to the Holy Land - when you go to the places and see what Jesus and the apostles saw when they were there. This was the case for me when we went to Caesarea Philippi - the place that is the setting for today’s Gospel passage in which Peter makes his profession of faith in Jesus as the “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Caesarea Philippi is a region in the upper Galilee - in the former Northern Kingdom - where the Jewish people were overcome by their enemies. The son of the corrupt Jewish King Herod, Philip the Tetrarch, dedicated this region to Caesar and to himself. Caesarea Philippi became a center of pagan worship. In fact, a temple was constructed to the Roman god Hades and the Greek god Pan. Today, one can see in Caesarea Philippi the ruins of the pagan temple at the base of a huge rock formation. To the left of the temple is a cave that was thought to be the entryway to Hades - to Hell - the netherworld. In this place, at the time of Jesus, sacrifice to the pagan gods and temple prostitution would have been thriving - all allowed by the nominally Jewish political leaders. This was the backdrop for the conversation we hear Jesus have with his disciples in today’s Gospel. We can imagine them sitting there with the pagan temple in the background.
It is in front of a place of cultural depravity and religious and political corruption - all in plain sight - that Peter makes his profession of faith in Jesus. The “rock” of Peter’s faith is being contrasted to the huge rock on which the pagan temple is built. Jesus is saying that the sin and evil you see will not prevail against the faith on which the Church is built. The implication here too is one of mission - that the Church is to attack and will knock down the gates of the enemy. What seems like a fortress will not withstand the force of the Gospel and the advance of the Kingdom of God. What looks impossible to your eyes is not impossible for God. This is the power of faith in Christ. The power of the Church is not based on an earthly measure of power. We can easily get discouraged if we think the success of the mission of the church depends on earthly resources - the number of parishes, priests, religious, schools, and other Catholic institutions. We are living in a time today that is more like the culture the first apostles faced - a culture that was not only ignorant of the Gospel but hostile to it. We need not be discouraged, afraid, or lose faith when it seems that depravity and political and religious corruption are on the rise. Numbers and resources are not predictors of the Church’s “success”. The growth of Christianity to where it is today began with Jesus choosing 12 mostly uneducated men and a Pharisee who at first was furiously trying to put an end to this unorthodox Jewish movement. They had no institutions or political influence, yet they took the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Time and again, in the history of the Church, there has been surprising regeneration and renewal that would not have been predicted simply by assessing the cultural situation. We can point to the explosion of the monastic movement, the appearance of Saint Francis, Saint Dominic, St. Bernard, and the thousands who followed them. The Lord raised up St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Philip Neri, and St. Charles Borromeo when the church was in desperate need of reform and new life. In every age, the existence of the Church is a miracle. St. John Vianney, St. Therese, St. Maximillian Kolbe, like the saints that came before them, professed their faith in Christ in dark times and their witness has inspired millions. The Lord chooses and uses the small, the weak, and the insignificant to bring about an unforeseen and unimaginable growth. This is his way - a way we cannot predict. When St. Paul looked at his own life and how the Lord used the rejection of Jesus at the hands of his own people to bring the Gospel to the nations, he could only marvel: “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” We are not in a position to judge the mind of God. We come to faith by marveling at the mystery - how God continues to work in these “hidden” ways today - the same way Peter came to his profession of faith. It was not through a scientific analysis but by spending time with Jesus and sharing life with him until the evidence was such that the only reasonable explanation for what Peter experienced was “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” I recently heard the testimony of a newly ordained priest who spoke about his journey to the priesthood. He grew up with no faith whatsoever - not even baptized. When he was in college in Montreal, as a side job, he became a tour guide for a company that gave tours through the city. One of the major sights in Montreal is St. Joseph’s Oratory. When the young woman who was training him took him and a group of Japanese tourists through the shrine, she genuflected before the tabernacle. The young man asked her after the tour, “why did you do that?” She explained that she believed that God was present there. She was making a sign of reverence recognizing his presence. He asked more questions. She invited him to meet some of her friends. These Catholics were nothing like the image he had of Catholics as dour, boring, and repressed individuals. These people were filled with joy. He spoke about meeting a nun at a monastery whose face was radiant. He was surprised by her happiness. He said to himself, “Whatever she has, I want it too.” He saw a joy and a fullness of life that until that point he didn’t think was possible for him. He said he was going through life, and it was like he was carrying a bucket with holes in it. No matter what he put into the bucket, the bucket was never full, but when he was with these Catholics, he felt that his bucket was overflowing. This is the faith on which the Church is built and on which it is sustained and grows. It is not something we who are “flesh and blood” arrive at on our own. It is a gift revealed by God that reveals God. May we face what looks impossible to our eyes - when it even looks like evil has the upper hand - with the faith of Peter, Paul, and that young priest from Montreal. It is a faith not dependent on our circumstances but on Him who has met us and chosen us. It is Christ who builds his church, and he will not forsake the work of his hands.