Isaiah 22: 19-23; Romans 11: 33-36; Matthew 16: 13-20
The liturgy of the Word this week centres on a moment which irreversibly changes the world. Sacred Scripture is full of such moments, some obvious and memorable, others hidden to all but the serious student of the ways of God. They are potent moments of revelation in which we suddenly catch a glimpse of God at work, ‘caught in the act’ as it were, as he sets about changing history into salvation history. For us these moments are graced insights into the profound wisdom of all his ways.
Jesus asks the disciples a question whose answer will become part of the deposit of Catholic faith: Who do people say the Son of Man is?
Numerous opinions are reported and their diversity testifies to the fact that the people don’t really know. So the question is addressed to the disciples themselves: But you, who do you say I am?
Peter answers on behalf of the Twelve: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
I imagine Jesus would have left a moment of silence before he replied to Peter; at least some seconds to let the breathtaking enormity of the moment sink in. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
There is a solemnity about this pronouncement by Peter which immediately reminds us of other similar moments like the Father’s words at Jesus’ baptism or at the Transfiguration: This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.
The pronouncements are similar because in each case it is the Father speaking: Simon son of Jonah, it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.
And so this ‘moment’ is firstly a moment in which God speaks; a moment of truth.
It is also a Trinitarian moment revealing the action of the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of knowledge and understanding.
It is a moment which changes Peter. The heavy clouds of what seems like an almost habitual incomprehension suddenly part above the head of Peter and the divine spotlight beams down on him. He is enlightened with a power not his own and becomes the rock of the Church, the source of unity, the guarantor of truth.
Therefore this moment is also a moment of gift. In this world of uncertainty and confusion where men attempt to define right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and even the nature of human dignity by means of fallible legal processes, God gives us an unerring source of infallible truth and guidance direct from heaven. What a grace for mankind!
Peter becomes the rock on which the Church of Christ is built and the holder of the keys of authority. In that electric moment of divine communication we could apply to Peter the words of today’s reading from Isaiah: I invest him … gird him ... entrust him … and he shall be a father (a Holy Father).
What follows next is a lovely image which tells us so much about what it means to be, not only the Pope, but every bishop and priest. God says: I drive him like a peg into a firm place.
Peter becomes like a tent peg holding up the entire structure because it is driven into a firm place, which is the promise God makes to him. The nomadic Hebrews used to hang cups and pitchers from the rope held taut by the tent peg; it became a kind of ‘throne of glory’ for the family, as Isaiah says. If the peg were to loosen, all those who depend on it would fall and be destroyed.
But Peter is a rock which will never be moved; built on him the Church is indefectible: the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. The whole Church depends on the firmness of Peter. It is our glory, the glory of the entire Church.
The moment of Peter’s first pronouncement of truth would be followed by many others.
We remember Pope Pius IX in 1854: The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.
We remember Pope Pius XII on 1st November 1950 who declared: …by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
Let us thank God always for the gift of the Holy Father who upholds the Church in Jesus’ power and name and who, despite the human frailties he shares with Peter, his predecessor, gives us security in the truth and confidence in the Church.