The events mentioned in today’s Gospel reading are but vaguely introduced by St. Luke who simply says:
Once, when Jesus was praying ...
What could possibly be more vague than that if one is looking for some locality in which to situate and better understand the subsequent events! But that is the point, Luke does not particularly want to inform us where Jesus was at that time; he wishes above all to draw our attention to the fact of Jesus’ prayer which is most important for Luke who regularly takes care to highlight its divine potential and to outline the sublimely mysterious aura associated with it. And in that he was absolutely correct because such prayer was the very essence of Jesus’ life and mission here on earth:
My doctrine is not Mine but His who sent Me. I speak to the world those things which I heard from Him....... The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him. (John 7:16; 8:26, 29)
In our first reading taken from the prophet Zechariah the Lord God said:
I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and petition;
and that prophecy received its ultimate fulfilment with the coming of God’s Son on earth -- born of Mary of the house of David -- to live among God’s People, to serve God’s redeeming purpose. And it could well have been that the prayer of Jesus at this very moment picked out by St. Luke was indeed prayer for a spirit of grace and petition to be given God’s People and, most especially, to be bestowed on the twelve Apostles with Him on this occasion; for, turning to them He said:
‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They said in reply, ‘John the Baptist; others Elijah; still others, One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter said in reply, ‘The Christ of God.’
The divine potential and power of Jesus’ prayer, having been thereby demonstrated by those words of Peter, was openly acknowledged and proclaimed by Jesus when -- according to St. Matthew’s account – He said that Peter’s answer was indeed a most gracious gift from His Father:
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father in heaven. (Matthew 16:17)
Knowing, or rather, believing now that Jesus was the Christ of God, Peter and the disciples were feeling a confidence and trust similar to that of which St. Paul speaks in his letter to the Romans (8:31):
If God is for us, who can be against us?
For, as it would seem from scholars’ endeavours to ‘calibrate’ Jesus’ life on earth, the Twelve disciples had recently witnessed and experienced most wonderful manifestations of their Lord’s power and of the authenticity of His mission. They themselves had been sent out by Him to proclaim the kingdom of God with power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases; and the success of their mission had set all the people talking about Jesus, and had even drawn Herod Antipas’ attention: Who is this about whom I hear such things? Indeed, so interested or concerned had Herod become that he even tried to meet Jesus. The Apostles, again, had recently seen Jesus multiply bread (5 loaves and 2 fish) to feed more than 5,000 persons; He had walked on water before their very eyes and had performed miraculous healings for many individuals; and then, they had witnessed yet another miraculous feeding of a multitude, this time some 4,000 people being nourished and sustained at His bidding. Peter’s words confessing Jesus as the Christ of God expressed the exuberant feelings of all of the Apostles, He was the Christ, the Messiah!
The disciples having thus been both enlightened and confirmed in their faith in Him, Jesus was next able to proceed immediately -- but not without a vigorous admonition (He rebuked!) -- to tell them what was soon to happen to Him:
He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone. He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Once again, with such words, He mysteriously fulfilled what the prophet had foretold:
They shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son, and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a first-born.
Had the apostles, however, rightly understood the exact meaning and significance of what Peter had been inspired to say?
You are the Christ of God!
The only other words that give us the same meaning are also to be found in St. Luke, in his account of the presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple by Mary. There St. Luke (2:26) says of Simeon, the priest who took the Child in his arms:
It had been revealed to him that he would not see death before he had seen the LORD’S CHRIST.
The Christ, the Messiah, were expressions frequently used when speaking of the hopes of the devout in Jewish society who were longing for the advent of God’s salvation; ‘the Christ’, ‘the Son of God’, are other expressions readily to hand in our New Testament scriptures; but the expressions, ‘The Christ of God’ and its equivalent, ‘The Lord’s Christ’, stand alone and as one in their perfect clarity. Jesus, Who at the inauguration of His Public Ministry had had to rebuff the Devil’s temptations on this issue, was most desirous now that His apostles should be able to recognize and believe in Him as the Christ of God, the Saviour sent by God, and not allow themselves to be led astray by any subsequent endeavours of Satan to derail His work that would continue through their proclamation of His Gospel. They had to know Him truly, and unshakeably believe in Him, not simply as the Christ – subject to human misinterpretation -- but as:
The Christ of God! The Lord’s Christ!
How truly wonderful it is that here we can recognize the most beautiful harmony evidenced by Jesus’ ardent prayer for a spirit of grace and petition on behalf of His apostles, by His Father’s words of inspiration bestowed on Peter, and by the promise of the Holy Spirit given to Simeon of old!!
That the apostles might be enabled and prepared to proclaim, not the Messiah of popular expectation, but the Christ of salvation, Jesus sought to impress upon their minds and fix in their memories – He rebuked them – the truth and the hope they would have to demonstrate and promote in the face of excesses of both exuberance and depression:
The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then, to show clearly that He was warning against, and warding off, all popular conceptions of the Christ, the Saviour, to come:
He said to ALL (those around), ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.’
People of God, St. Luke wants to help us recognize the sublime secret of Jesus … communion with, prayer to and trust in, His Father is always an occasion of supreme blessing ... and we, His present-day disciples, must appreciate that without in like manner ourselves turning confidently to the Father, without such prayer and communion with Him, we can never come to a personal knowledge of Jesus our Lord, nor ever be able to truly embrace and further His will to save us and all mankind. And, as we consider Jesus’ experience on the Cross and are struck by His great silence, we are led to a realization that prayer to His Father was the ultimate medium for Jesus’ self-expression and self-fulfilment, and that it was the root of His Being during those hours of total torment. Consequently, our personal conformity to and enduring union with Him can surely find its due measure of fullness and authenticity only to the extent in which we are willing to embrace our own measure of sufferings in His way:
I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. … knowing Him …. and sharing His sufferings by being conformed to His death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)