Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
My friends in Christ, in the year of our Lord 1808, the French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte was the tyrant of mainland Europe. France having essentially destroyed itself in the godless horrors of the French Revolution some years prior, Napoleon picked up what fragments of France there yet still remained and made an empire; and by 1808 his empire had expanded far beyond the traditional borders of France. And so it was that he invaded and occupied Rome. And he arrested the cardinals and, soon after, imprisoned even the pope himself, Pope Pius VII, who promptly excommunicated him (back in a forgotten age when people actually took that seriously and understood the severe ramifications of that). And upon being excommunicated, Napoleon went into a spitting rage, veritably howling at the pope: “You fool! I will destroy you!” And how did the pope respond to this very real threat? Why…he started laughing of course! “You say that I am the fool?” he replied. “Why, we have not been able to destroy ourselves for two thousand years! And you will not be able to do it, either.” So…good luck! Well, we know the rest of the story. Napoleon is dead. His empire is gone. But the Church is still here…. Emperor Nero could not destroy us in the very beginning when there were only a few thousand Christians in all the world; Attila the Hun could not do it; Frederick Barbarossa also failed, and the Saracens, and the Tudors, and the Nazis, and the Communists – they all failed to destroy the Church (and certainly not for lack of trying). Nor could we even manage to destroy ourselves (again, not for lack of trying). Because what Pope Pius VII said to Napoleon absolutely is true: try as we might, we simply cannot destroy ourselves. And that is very good news. We are the Bride of Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ; and as for Christ Himself: He is invincible. The Church cannot be destroyed because Christ cannot be destroyed. Christ has already won! Christ is the winner; Christ is the victor; Christ is the champion; Christ is invincible and Christ is here to stay. Viva Cristo Rey! “Long live Christ the King!” And Christ built the Church – His Church…us – on solid rock. And even “the gates of hell shall not prevail.” This was His proclamation in our Gospel text today from Saint Matthew, spoken to Saint Peter the Rock; and through that proclamation, we are given to realize the fulfillment of the promise that Christ makes to us: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” And the gates of hell shall not prevail. For our reflections today, I should like for us to consider what a gate is and why “the gates of hell shall not prevail,” which actually has everything to do with who Peter is. Consider the gates. Gates are a defensive structure. Gates keep out unwanted visitors. And if the gates of hell shall not prevail, that means that hell’s defenses are weak – and it is the Church that is on the offensive: attacking Satan; despoiling hell itself of all efforts to steal souls from God! And it is our prayers to our Father Who art in Heaven, our friendship with Christ the King, our fellowship in the Holy Spirit, our sacred striving for virtue and holiness of life – for nothing less than sainthood itself…. It is all of this that is our battering ram, utterly pulverizing those flimsy gates of hell. And the sword of the Lord, the power of Christ, has already won! Now…we say things like “sword of the Lord,” and in very truth the Book of Revelation will prophesy that the Son of Man returns in glory with sword in hand, charging into battle. But here in this Gospel text, Jesus does not speak of sword; He speaks of rock. The boy David conquered the Philistine giant, Goliath, with a rock. The Lord Jesus, Son of David, conquers the demonic giant, Satan, also with a rock. And that rock…is Peter; “and upon this rock, I will build My Church, and the gates of [hell] shall not prevail against it.” But who is Peter for crying out loud? Formerly known as “Simon,” he was little more than a country-bumpkin (by Jerusalem’s hoity-toity cosmopolitan standards). No formal education and no specialized training – he was a mere fisherman (and come to think of it, maybe not even a very good one! “We have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.”). He was a whiner (Lord, “we have given up everything and followed You. What will there be for us?”). He was impulsive – hacking off people’s ears with reckless abandon. He was a braggart (“Even [if] I…have to die with You, I will not deny You.”). He was a coward – denying the Lord, of course, not once, not twice, but three times! And, in the end it might seem, he was a backslider; when all seemed lost – and sure, maybe Jesus rose again from the dead, but who knows…in that moment of doubt and despair and hope was all but totally lost, did he persevere? Or did he take hollow comfort and resigned himself to going back to how things were before all of this “Jesus stuff” ever began? “I am going fishing.” Who was Peter for crying out loud? He certainly was all of that…and He was chosen. And in the end, truly, he was faithful. Peter was called and he responded with faith. And certainly he was not perfect. Who of us could ever claim to be otherwise? But the Lord does not call the perfect; rather, He perfects the called. Perhaps it was Peter’s impulsiveness redeemed what inspired him to proclaim, boldly, that which he proclaimed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That was quite a rash and, frankly, dangerous thing for him to say. After all, he said it at Caesarea Philippi – which is located, fittingly enough, at the headwaters of the River Jordan. I say “fittingly enough” because that place symbolized the source from which all graces flow…and they built a pagan shrine there! The place was a pagan shrine to the alleged “divinity” of Caesar – and it was Caesar who was supposed to be acknowledged and revered as “son of god.” Indeed, that was one of his imperial titles! Therefore, for Peter to say that Jesus – and not Caesar – was “the Son of the living God” was a bold proclamation indeed! It was insurrection! It was fighting words! It was what Jesus expected because this was who Peter truly was, truly was called to be: the Rock. The Rock upon whom Christ would build His Church. Now, there are those who argue that here is where Peter ceases to be special. He said his bit of faith, and kudos to him! But Jesus quickly moved on and made His point: the Church is where all of the action is, not some bone-head country-bumkin fisherman! False! Peter does not cease to be special here – for immediately after declaring what He did about the Church and the flimsy-ness of the gates of hell, the Lord goes on and heaps even further praise and glory upon Peter himself. “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven,” He says, and here is precisely where Peter is singled out…and given primacy. That Jesus proclaims the establishment of His Church on the Rock of Peter happens pretty much in the same breath as the Lord’s declaration of the primacy of Peter certainly makes manifest His intention that Church and Peter are necessarily linked. There simply cannot be Peter without a Church, nor can there be the Church without Peter. It is why we speak of those who, sadly, are not in full communion with the Church. It is why we speak of such groups as the Society of Saint Pius X as “schismatic.” It is why the general term for our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters is Protestant, for in the beginning of their existence as various denominations, they protested against the primacy of Peter. And all of that is symbolized in the reference to “keys,” because for the Master of the house to entrust the keys to that house to a faithful steward really is to entrust not just the mere building of the house itself but also everything in it – including the Master’s family, even! – to that steward. Our text from the Prophet Isaiah given for us today is a prophecy, therefore, of the stewardship (and the primacy) of Simon Peter. In our day and age, the primacy of Peter continues; Pope Francis is the two-hundred-sixtyfifth successor of Saint Peter. He is the Vicar of Christ and the Keeper of the Keys who bears the Ring of the Fisherman. He leads and serves the Church, built upon the Rock of Peter, and it is he now who leads the Church’s battlefield charge in our holy crusade against those flimsy gates of hell. May it be that our holy reverence for the primacy of Peter will strengthen our own faith in Christ, the Son of the living God – He Whom we will soon come forward to receive, worthily and well, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar: the Eucharist…. And may it be, at the end of days, when the holy war for immortal souls is over and the gates of hell are smashed because they could not prevail against the infinite power of Christ and His Church…at the end of days, may it be that all of us will be welcomed and received forever into halls of heavenly realms.
on Monday, August 24 at 9:28AM