22 February 2010 Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle
1 Peter 5, 1-4; Psalm 23; Matthew 16, 13-23
You might find it strange that the feast today is the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle. The stole is white and the Gloria is sung or recited today in the Season of Lent. Like the Chair of the committee, this chair refers to the occupant, not the furniture. But there is the furniture, the Cathedra Petri, a relic that is preserved at St. Peter’s Basilica and done by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1647-53. Nevertheless, we celebrate St. Peter who Christ appointed as the servant-leader of the whole Church. The office has endured many generations and thus the chair became the sign of a long tradition and a focus for the universal church. It is indeed the pope who traces his authority to the first leader, St. Peter. It is therefore the pope that unites all Catholic churches in the world.
Jesus in the Gospel asks his disciples two things: First, who is He according to other people? The disciples naturally answers Him that people think that He is John the Baptizer, that He is Elijah or one of the prophets. The second question is crucial: Who is He according to his disciples? And it was Peter’s proclamation that He is the “Son of God” that satisfied Jesus. It is Peter’s answer that made Jesus call Peter, the Rock. “And upon this Rock, I will build my Church.”
We are in some way being called like St. Peter. But we must have a faith is truly based on Jesus. It is thus clear that a strong faith foundation in Jesus is based on who Jesus is to us. How we know Jesus, Who is Jesus to us, will determine how we live our faith, and how we practice our faith. Thus the knowledge of Jesus will determine the quality of our love for Him, and the quality of service we render for Him.
For example, if Jesus is a friend to us, then our love for Jesus is that of a friend, and our service of Jesus is based on good friendship. A case in point: The case of Moses. In Exodus 33:11, we read that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” And in another place God chides the Israelites for their anger at Moses by saying: “Hear my words, When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them by visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him, I speak face to face — clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Numbers 12:6-8).
Friendship is not an image only: Jesus Himself clears our relationship with Him: You are no longer slaves but my friends. We, Jesuits, call ourselves, Compañia de Jesus, and our relationship is described as “friends in the Lord.” This relationship of friendship determines how we love each other and how we serve others. The song “Day by Day” in the hit musical, Godspell, is similar to St. Ignatius’ desire in the second week of the Spiritual Exercises, “to know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more closely” day by day.
How do we know who Jesus is? And we can know who Jesus is by praying. Once I directed young people in their retreat. One of them left me a note which says, “I do want to pray, Father, but it is also the last thing I want to do.” It is indeed true to all of us: in the very depths of our hearts, we yearn for God, and yet, we are also afraid that is why it is the last thing we want to do. Because when we plunge ourselves in prayer, we know that we are not anymore in control of our lives — God is. And we are not used to it.
Rudolph Otto describes our encounter with God as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery which evokes holy awe (tremendum) but which also fascinates (fascinans). The very God who awes us also draws us. It is like seeing a movie star: we are fascinated by the movie star’s presence, but we are afraid to approach him—not that we are shy, we just do not know what to say. The Psalmist says, “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the Living God” (Psalm 84). And when we pray to God, we listen and we hear the words, “Fear not.” It is the same words God has spoken to our great biblical leaders: to Daniel, to Gideon, to our very own, Mary when the Angel announced the coming of the Savior.
Our experience tells us that the closer we are to God, the better off we are. Do not be afraid to pray; do not be afraid to know God. I guess the best way is to look at the deepest meaning of the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, which tells of the fear of the human heart before God. God, like the Beast, wants us to know him as love, but we, like Beauty, are terrified by his size and what seems to us God’s anger at us, who are sinners. If we allow God to come close to us, if we kiss the Beast, we will find that he is only love and delights in us and in our love.