Sep. 16, 2018

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2018

THE REAL MEANING OF CAESAREA PHILIPPI: “TAKE UP YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW ME”

Readings: 1st- Is. 50:5-9; 2nd- Jas. 2:14-18; Gospel- Mk. 8:27-35

In his book, The Lamb’s Supper, Scott Hahn tells the story of Prince Vladimir of Kiev. In 988, upon his conversion, this Ukrainian prince sent emissaries to Constantinople to find out more about the gospel. There, the emissaries witnessed the Byzantine Liturgy in the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom. The experience of the chant, the incense, the icons, and particularly the real Presence of Christ left them bewildered. The emissaries sent the following words to the prince: “We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. Never have we seen such beauty. We cannot describe it, but this much we can say: there God dwells among mankind” (The Lamb’s Supper, p.115). The first version of Peter in today’s gospel feels like those emissaries of Prince Vladimir of Kiev. He is amazed in a way that is beyond human expression. This, we see in his response to the question by Jesus, “But who do you say that I am?” Quickly, Peter responds, “You are the Christ.”

If we go a little further in the gospels, we notice that the transfiguration immediately followed the faith declaration by Peter at Caesarea Philippi. In Mark chapter 9:1-8, Jesus took his three disciples, Peter, James and John to the mountain where he was transfigured. His clothes became “brilliantly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them” (Mk. 9:2). Then Elijah and Moses appeared in their midst. The same Peter exclaimed, “Rabbi, it is wonderful for us to be here, so let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (v.5). 

At Caesarea Philippi, two great events took place. The first is Peter’s recognition of the identity of Jesus. The second is Jesus’ manifestation of the Way of the Cross. The first starts with Jesus’ generic question about himself, “Who do people say that I am?” That means, “What do you hear? What feedback do you receive from our audience?” The disciples provided various answers: “They said in reply, John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets” (Mk.8:28-29). Whether that question was premeditated or came spontaneously from Jesus, wasn’t the matter. Here, Jesus was leading the disciples to a deeper revelation of his mission. 

Then came the big one, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.” This is the first bold expression by Peter. Peter knew the Master. He knew that he was the Christ. He knew that he was the Son of the Living God. He knew that he was the redeemer. He knew that he was Lord and Savior who has come to save the world. Peter knew Christ and had experienced the intimacy of his miracles. Peter knew Christ beyond what people thought and said. But did Peter understand the real mission of Christ, the Way of the Cross?

Part two of this encounter presents us with the paradox of Peter’s ignorance, what some theologians called the “scandal of the cross”. Here, one might wonder what exactly Peter was thinking. Having professed him as the Christ, Peter would imagine that the issue of suffering and death wouldn’t be His. That would be a scandal. Scripture says about Jesus, “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (v.31-32). Notice that Jesus spoke plainly about this. He began to teach his disciples. He began to educate them on the meaning of suffering. We all need someone to educate us about suffering. We need divine knowledge and wisdom to know the real meaning of suffering. Peter didn’t know that. So, Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.Peter didn’t want to hear the ugly side of Christ’s mission because he wasn’t educated about suffering. 

This point introduced the great teaching of Jesus about the Way of the Cross, the reality of his suffering and death. Jesus rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” How do human beings think? How do you think? How do I think? How do we think? We think that our faith should be made easy and simple. We think that God should not let us suffer. We are usually scared of suffering. But Christ gave us the great lesson today, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mk. 8:34-35). That’s the real meaning of the encounter at Caesarea Philippi.

Saint James invites us to marry faith and action in the second reading. Peter expressed his faith in Christ but lacked that capacity for good works by discouraging the way of the cross. My friends here on Facebook would remember my post earlier in the week. What happened was that a priest friend of mine was killed in Nigeria, Rev. Fr. Jude, murdered in broad daylight. He wasn’t the first to be murdered in recent times. I knew Fr. Jude Egbom well enough because he was ordained a priest in 2005, just a year ahead of me. We were contemporaries, attended the same seminary. We did philosophy and theology at the same place. His diocese is about twenty-five miles away from mine. Fr. Jude was very vibrant, humorous, lively and a happy priest. He was shot dead just after coming out of the barbing salon by unknown assassins. I grieved. Then I posted my lamentations on Facebook. That post received a lot of comments, and some people wrote personal emails to me. I sounded like Peter, wishing that death wouldn’t come to us priests that way. I heard that voice saying to me afterwards, “You think not as God does, but as humans do.” I heard Christ say to me, “Vin, you must be ready to take up your cross and follow me.” That voice was strong.

One great lesson from today’s readings is that we all must be willing to bear the cross because we have decided to follow Christ. That’s the true meaning of Caesarea Philippi. Christ says, “Whoever wishes to follow me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Isn’t that hard sometimes, especially when it comes to us? Aren’t we unprepared most times to carry the cross? Don’t we sometimes try to wish suffering and pain away? Like Peter, don’t we take Christ aside and behave in a schizophrenic manner, try to rebuke him for introducing us to suffering? We don’t want sickness. We don’t want death. We don’t want to miss our set goals. We don’t want pains. We don’t want to experience persecution as Christians. 

Let’s realize that defending the truth. Standing for justice. Speaking up for the Church and for Christ. Admitting errors and asking for forgiveness. Being generous. Helping the needy. Caring for the sick. Bearing sickness or loss in faith. Being willing to be persecuted as Catholics, etc, are aspects of the good works that express our faith. These are not quite easy, they contain in them the way of the cross. They are moments that we say, “You are the Christ.” Are we ready to profess the Christ? As Catholics, at this crucial time of our faith, are we ready to stand for Jesus and for his Church? Are we ready to show the world that we have strong faith, that we really know who Christ the Crucified is?