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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Twenty First Sunday of Year (A)

(Isaiah 22:19-23; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20)

In the first reading we were told of one Eliakim who, in Old Testament times, was given a position not unlike that of Peter in the New Testament and that of our modern Pope: what he opened no one could shut and what he closed none would open because this authority had been given him by the Lord, he had not chosen or acquired it for himself:
I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.
God was to establish him like a tent peg in a firm place, so that the tent would be secure even though the wind might blow hard.
I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honour for his family.
Such an elevation of Eliakim would indeed bring glory to his father’s house; and it was there, we are told, that the trouble began:
On him shall hang all the glory of his family: descendants and offspring, all the little dishes, from bowls to jugs.
That is a striking picture of the family taking over the man: relatives -- close and remote -- all came to him with their requests and needs and, in that way, the family take over and gradually smother the public servant authorized by God:
On that day, says the LORD of hosts, the peg fixed in a sure spot shall give way, break off and fall, and the weight that hung on it shall be done away with; for the LORD has spoken.
Shebna had used his acquired authority to feather his own nest, to proclaim his own glory; Eliakim had been placed in authority by the Lord that he might be:
            a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
However, the personal weakness of Eliakim became manifest as he ended up serving not so much the inhabitants of Jerusalem as his own kith and kin… thus repeating the original sin of Adam, who chose to please his wife rather than obey God.
The first reading, as you see, shows how power can both corrupt and corrode.  And yet, the Gospel reading goes on to proclaim the establishment of Peter in a position of immeasurably greater authority and power.  Now, why are we given readings today which are seemingly so opposed?  Surely our modern democratic principles and popular contemporary opinion cause us to ask: can it ever be wise to give any one individual so much power?
The Old Testament examples of Shebna and Eliakim provide a contrast to our Gospel passage that provokes and enables us to espy something of the wisdom of God of which St. Paul spoke in the second reading, a wisdom that never ceased to astound him the more he considered the wonders of God's saving Providence:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!
For, in the Gospel we find a new ingredient, so to speak, which transforms the peg of the Old Testament into the Rock of the New Testament:
Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
The new, transforming, ingredient is to be found in the fact that Peter was given authority ‘in the name of Jesus’.  Because Peter -- inspired by the Father -- had proclaimed his faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of the Living God, therefore, Jesus henceforth would build His Church on the Rock of Peter’s faith.  Only Peter  was chosen by Jesus as the foundation stone, the Rock, on which to build His Church, because of His Father’s revelation to Peter; and also because of Peter’s unhesitating and wholehearted response to that inspiration.  Both Jesus and the Father Himself are thus to be seen behind Peter.
Even Peter’s subsequent personal faults and failings – first, being so strongly rebuked by Jesus’ words, 'Get behind me Satan', and secondly, denying Jesus three times -- far from invalidating the pre-eminence of Peter, even led to a strengthening of his position with regard to his fellow apostles.  On the first occasion, Jesus renewed His choice of Peter for the function, the public function, of Rock for the Church saying:
Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren."  (Luke 22:31-32)
And likewise, after Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus, St. John tells us that the Risen Lord later appeared by the Sea of Galilee and said in front of six other apostles:
Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these? ….Do you love Me? Do you love Me?
Jesus evidently found Peter’s answer clearly acceptable, for, when he cried:
            Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You!
Jesus immediately responded with words of re-commissioning and trust:
            Feed my sheep.  Follow me.
Now, the book of Revelation tells us that the Risen Jesus, in His heavenly glory at the right hand of the Father in heaven, is constantly making intercession for us, and surely, therefore, constantly interceding for Peter both as Rock and Centre of Unity for the Church.  For we can never forget that Peter's function as Rock for the Church which the gates of Hades will never be able to overpower, is balanced by that other supremely important function as Centre of Unity for the Church, confirming his brothers, in accordance with Jesus' final prayer (John. 17:20-21):
Father, I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.        
Therefore, People of God, our readings today help us see clearly just who is the supreme head and ultimate leader of the Church: it is the heavenly Jesus.  True, Peter is the head of the Church on earth, he is the visible head because Jesus wants His Church to be truly, visibly, one on earth; but Peter is only able to be that visible head, because Jesus is the heavenly, ultimate, Head who prays unceasingly for Peter that he may continue to fulfil his function towards his brethren in the Church on earth.
We Catholics do not blindly follow any human being in our lives as disciples of Jesus: in all things we look to, we love, we worship and obey, Jesus, in the Spirit, for the Father.  Ultimately, it is Jesus Who, through Peter, was foreshadowed in Isaiah's prophecy concerning Eliakim, because Jesus is the eschatological figure Who brings glory to His Father's house, as the prophet said:
He will become a throne of glory to his father’s house (23b).
It is through faith and baptism as disciples of Jesus that those who are called to receive new and eternal life are thereby enabled to give eternal glory to the Father, in Jesus, by the Spirit.  This supreme glorification of the Father is to be accomplished by Jesus’ disciples abiding in the unity originally given by the Spirit, in Jesus, at baptism; to be subsequently nourished at the Eucharist, then guided and protected under the maternal solicitude of Mary in the Church.  As Pope Benedict says:
The content of, the ultimate event taking place in, the Eucharist is the unifying of Christians, out of their individual and mutual separation into the Unity of the One Bread and the One Body.  Out of many nations one People is being made through their sharing of the one table.
Jesus knows well that His Church can only fully overcome the powers of Hades by abiding ever more deeply as one in love of the Truth, and for that end He associates Peter, and his successors, with Himself: they are to serve, here on earth, as constant witnesses to, protectors and promoters of, the supreme earthly good of that unity in Truth and Love for which Jesus so ardently prayed:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.  And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.  (Jn. 17:20-23)
Therefore, although we lovingly recognize and gratefully appreciate Peter as head of the Church here on earth, nevertheless, we look beyond him: we confess the Spirit of Jesus guiding, protecting, and sustaining him; we acknowledge the Person of Jesus Who, having gone before him, unceasingly calls him to follow on the way He has gone; and we yearn for the Father the originating source and ultimate fulfilment of our salvation.  Such an appreciation, such a vision, fills us with a gratitude which leads us to cry out in those words of Isaiah:
On this mountain (the new Jerusalem, the Church of Jesus) the LORD of Hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, and the rebuke of His people He will take away from all the earth.  We have waited for Him and He will save us: this is the LORD, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation."  (25:6-9)