by Father Thomas Catania
YOU DON’T WANT to get me started on the subject of professional athletes’ salaries. I really don’t care whether the Mets or the Yankess bring joy (or misery) to your summer evenings — they’re all overpaid.
Maybe it’s because there are so many teachers-in-training at the college where I teach, but I say those salaries should go to the women and men who work with the future of our world, which future at the moment cannot read or write, may suffer from learning disabilities or autism or any of the barricades that life can erect that seem to say, “Stop where you are and go no further.” These teachers are the ones who, by their love and patience, will make the future alive in hope (to coin a phrase). Their millions will be, not in dollars, but in the stars whom they will send forth — if only to live lives that bear light that would otherwise have never shone. They can look into the face of a child struggling to form a letter, do a sum, speak a sentence and see a journalist, a scientist, a lawyer. They can see the sun behind the clouds of dawn.
Such vision is the vision of one called to a life, not merely charged with a task. These are the ones whose determined passion moves the times and the tides into the unimaginable newness that is every future. Annie Sullivan may be their paradigm-in-chief, but they have another paradigm in Peter, at least as he is represented in today’s Gospel.
The incident as Matthew tells it requires that we hearers juxtapose two orders of experience. One is that of the lumpish disciple with the too-quick tongue, who is challenged by his itinerant master with an apparently idle question, “Who do you think I am?”
The other is that of the Apostle, who, having encountered the Crucified One raised to glory, can say of Him what only the awed believer can utter, ”You are the Son of the living God.” For, with the kind of binocularity that the Gospels require of us, we have to see here at once the unpolished gem that is Jesus walking the streets of Caesarea Philippi (and the equally unpolished disciple who blurts out his answer) and the risen Lord, who alone is the hero and centerpiece of the New Testament message (what other Lord is alive?). The question, nominally posed by a man to his fellow travelers, is answered by an Apostle. The question is poised to elicit a faith that will require the intervention of the Creator God to shape. The question is put to clay; it is answered (rightly) by grace.
The eyes of the teacher are “binocular” in the same way; seeing unformed clay, they look, as it were, where the Creator God has not yet gone — to the unimagined future of six-year-olds. Hoping, they elicit what they dare of that future, and leaving, as they must, God to complete the project. Then it makes sense for Matthew to bring the two sides of his image together with the words he attributes to Jesus: “No mere man has revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.” For what Peter “sees,” the messiahship of the risen Lord, will only be “revealed” in the Creator’s new creation, the resurrection, which follows upon the dismal hours described next in the narrative: that “passion” that will move the times and the tides into the unimaginable future of the realm of God.
So, while it is of Peter that the text says, “whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” it is really Jesus in His rising who is figured in the Isaian image of one who, “when he opens, no one shall shut, and when he shuts no one shall open.” It is he who is “clothed” with the robe of royal authority and made a “father” to a new Jerusalem. It is on his shoulders that the key to the royal realm has been placed.
The marvelous binocularity of Matthew’s text makes Jesus and Peter two sides of one image. Both in the narrative are not yet what they will be made — Messiah and Apostle — but the clay of Peter will become the confessing Apostle as the clay of Jesus is first broken and then exalted as Messiah. The grandeur of Peter is a pale reflection of the grandeur of the One he confesses, and neither the confession nor the grandeur is possible without the intervention of the heavenly Father, whose “judgments” are “inscrutable” and whose “ways” are “unsearchable” (Rom. 11:33) — and who has made this Jesus “both Lord and Christ.”
As the teacher sees among the arithmetic workbooks and the construction paper projectsthe builders and brilliance of years yet to be, so the Peter of today’s Gospel. “No mere man” could say “You are the Christ,” but the Apostle, graced as we are also, by the Spirit, yet to be sent by the heavenly Father into what is yet mere clay, can cry out with the Apostle who would join him dying (and rising): “To him be glory forever. Amen.”
Think, when you next look at a crucifix, of what the Creator God has enabled you to see — not a dead man, but the Son of the living God.[hr]
Readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 22: 19-33
Romans 11: 33-36
Matthew 16: 13-20
Father Catania is an English professor at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, and an assistant at Holy Child Jesus parish, Richmond Hill.