Flag and Coat-of-Arms of the Vatican City State (the “Holy See”).
[Jesus said to Peter] “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and ……. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 16:18-19.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
Have you ever stood under the spectacular dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and looked up? In clear capital letters you will see the Latin words: “Tu es Petrus and super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum” “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven” all taken from today’s gospel.
This passage from Matthew is the locus classicus for the claim that the Pope is the legitimate successor of Peter, believed to have been the first Pope, and is therefore the primary leader of the Christian Church, just as Peter was 2000 years ago. It also contains a pun in Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek and no doubt other languages, but unhappily not in English. For example, in French, the gospel reads “Tu es Pierre et sur cette pierre je bâtirai mon église” In all those languages, “Peter” and “stone” or “rock” are the same word. Jesus is equating Peter with the foundation of the Christian community which will continue after him. In the original, with Jesus speaking Aramaic rather than the Greek of the gospel writings, he nicknamed Peter Cephas, meaning rock (or Rocky?). The dome of St. Peter’s also stands directly over what is believed to be the tomb of Peter, three stories down from the high altar, and so the church is literally built on him! (Note that the only connection in English between Peter and rock is the word “petrification” and “petrified”, or turned to stone; not helpful, even though the name Peter is indeed derived from the Latin word Petrus). His tomb, underneath St. Peter’s, is near what was once a narrow lane through a pagan necropolis open to the sky. Take a look:
Tomb of St. Peter. (This video takes a little bit of learning to operate, but persevere…)
Additionally, today’s gospel from Matthew is also the origin of the keys in the arms and flag of the Vatican City State, as you can see above, the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Also, any church statue of a man holding two keys means it is St. Peter, as they are his symbol.
So what does today’s gospel mean for us today? Jesus seems to be doing a sort of review of progress so far. I think many of us could understand this in terms of an annual job review, with compliments on what has been done well, and goals set to improve the rest. His disciples gave him that, reporting that some say he is John the Baptist returned from the dead, or, even more spectacularly, Elijah or Jeremiah. After that, Jesus wanted to check on them: “Who do you say I am?” One can imagine a moment of silence, as they all presumably thought he was the long awaited Messiah. Peter stepped forward and stated it out loud and clear: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Remember that “Christ” means the Anointed One, or Messiah. So at that moment Jesus must have thought that they had understood everything about his mission, his vocation, and declared Peter to be the very foundation of this new community. Today’s gospel ends at that point. The very next verses prove, unhappily, that they did not understand his mission! They firmly believed he was the messiah of Jewish hope and expectation, the one who would restore the kingdom of David and expel the hated occupying pagan forces from the land of Israel. On the contrary, when Jesus stated that his mission would end in disaster and death, Peter objected strongly, to which Jesus replied “Get behind me Satan…” (Matthew 16:23), this same Peter who had just been given the keys of heaven! Jesus then said that his followers must be prepared to take up the cross and follow him; his call to all of us is just as strong today as it was then. Note the hidden lesson here. How many parents and teachers have there been who have tried to decide what their children and students should be rather than pointing out their strengths and talents, and allowing them to figure it out? Jesus strenuously rejected his disciples’ false image of him as he already knew what the prophecies concerning the Messiah meant. Our children and students are still finding this out. All we should do is praise their strengths, their gifts and perhaps indicate all the possibilities they might consider, rather than thrust our own choice on what they should become instead of just suggesting it as a possibility.
As we are currently confronted with Covid 19, we must act as true followers with strength, dignity and conviction that ultimately truth, good health, will prevail. But we too, almost despite all that, must declare our belief in Jesus’ identity and vocation, as it is also ours. Remember we are adopted daughters and sons of God, with our vocation to be Christ to the world. So, following today’s gospel, perhaps it’s time for some personal introspection; what progress have we all made along that path? Do we seek glory and power in our own world, or the profound satisfaction that we are doing our best to be servants of all, as Jesus was, offering all to God?
Arms of Pope Francis, Vatican City gardens.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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