You must forgive me for insisting one more time on the same theme. This post was inspired by a conversation with a good man who humbly asked me about certain things going on in this Catholic Church of 2022. I hesitated a little bit but then I explained to him my point of view. This is of course, my point of view. It is not doctrine that has to be followed or believed, it is no less, no more than the thoughts of one man trying to understand what happens in the midst of the horrible confusion that surrounds us. I have written about this many times recently and I thought I had everything more or less covered but … the questions of that good man elicited responses that are somewhat new. If I repeat myself as I often do, please bear with me and my rapidly fading memory.
We started talking about how to read the Gospel. I read the Gospels trying to bring together the many layers of meaning that I see as I try to understand. These levels appear to be infinite. I could compare my reading to the early days when I was trying to learn pop songs. Early in the 1960’s I did not own a tape recorder and vinyl records were expensive. I practiced on the guitar of a friend that lived nearby. How to learn new pop songs? As soon as the radio played them one had to listen carefully. The trick was to learn them by sections. The melody was easy to memorize, then one had to discern the bass line that was the door to the chords. That was the real tricky part. The chords were there and one had to de-compose them. Back then I learned to grab the chord and play it as an arpeggio in the family piano and then pass the notes to the guitar. Easy peasey. After catching the song a dozen times in the radio I had enough info to try to put it together. Then came the voices, the lyrics, etc. It was excellent training but tiresome and complicated. When cassette tape recorders came along it became quite easy to learn songs but by then I had a good idea of all the layers that make one of those three minute little works of art.
I do not hear Scripture verses on the radio but I can read them over and over. The wonderful part is that ‘something’ moves the mind to see each verse as the different facets of a diamond that always reveal more meaning with each pass.
The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away. (Matthew 16:1-3)
The prophet Jonah comes to the forefront there. Who was he? Read the Book of Jonah, a short book in your Bible, just a few pages. What comes to my mind is a reluctant prophet who receives a rather difficult mission, sort of a kamikaze mission: to go to Nineveh the Assyrian capital and declare in the name of God: “Sin no more or I will destroy you shortly.” Easy for God to say but Jonah must have thought: “Assyria, Nineveh … the cruelest rulers of the East live there … the city is huge. Once I am in there I will not escape. They will have their fun killing me slowly.” An so Jonah leaves in the opposite direction and decides to visit Spain (Tarshish) thinking that perhaps God will forget about it or find someone foolish enough to do the job.
Jonah goes to the coast and boards a ship for Tarshish: see you later Nineveh. Hey, the image repeats! Jesus is near the shore of the Sea of Galilee and he also boards a boat. Jesus and his disciples board Peter’s boat and sail towards the Caesarea Philippi area where most residents are pagan. Is there a message in that image? Well . . . Jesus was sent to preach to Israel, to the very people who asked him for a sign! What does he do? He blurts an enigmatic short discourse about Jewish meteorology and takes off to the opposite shore. There we definitely have a sign.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were people who in their own way wanted to serve God. For some reason, this man who resurrected the dead, fed multitudes with just a bit of food, restored eyesight to the blind, healed the deaf and dumb, and could read the intentions of the heart was not sign enough for the religious leaders of Israel. They wanted something made specially for them because in their minds the Messiah was not a physician or a miracle worker: the Messiah they were expecting was a great general, a Jewish Alexander who would come mounted on a white horse with a huge sword and subjugate the whole world to his will. Almost perfect for a tee shirt: “I came all the way to the end times and all I got was this peacenik Messiah M.D.” Nope. Give us a sign: blow up the Roman garrison with a snap of your fingers. Send the usurper king Herod into the sea like you did with the pigs at Gerasa! Do something aggressive for us. show us you are our leader!”
But Jesus took off leaving them scratching their heads.
Meanwhile, at Peter’s barque
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!’ Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:5-12)
After reading this passage one can easily see that the disciples were as obtuse as those left ashore. There are a few differences though.
- They were in the boat with Jesus
- Jesus was willing to explain the mysteries to them
- They were moving as the wind gently filled their sails
The boat is the Church. Jesus’ words open the doctrine to them. The wind symbolizes the push of the Holy Ghost. Off they go into unfriendly territory. Their trip is a clear type of the Church crossing the time of history all the way to unknown and dangerous shores. Beware of their leaven and worry not about bread because Jesus can make enough bread for all of you. Do not be like them, do not dream of conquering the world because I have conquered it. Do not expect a strong King because “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” The Church was not going to be anxious about incoming bad weather but trust Jesus all the way until the end: “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.“(Matthew 11: 25-30) That day Jesus chose to reveal Himself to the disciples while leaving the religious leaders confused. Beware those of you who lead because the Son can open the mysteries of the age to the simple and then you can be left at the beach wondering what happened.
On the shores of madness
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:13-20)
They landed on the opposite side of the lake near the cave where the Romans had built a temple to the god Pan. From that name we get the English word panic. The ancient pagans knew they had to respect certain things. Pan was the personification of the lowest instincts of the human race: madness, unholy sexual urges, hunger, thirst, ire, terror, etc. Those things had to be kept at bay least the man be destroyed by his own unleashed passions. The cave had gates to prevent robbers to steal the sacrifices left there by the worshipers. Those gates were locked and a ceremonial curse was pronounced against those who would dare to get in without permission.
Jesus, surrounded by the Twelve asks the now famous question “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Notice that he had never confirmed yet who that Son of Man was. Perhaps it was a device to avoid talking about the Messiah in the first person. He gets some answers but he obliquely reveals who he is in the second question: “But who do you say that I am?” and that is the cue for Peter to confess his faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Finally the identity of Jesus the Christ was out in the open. Here it is Christ Himself who is building a living parable.
Son of Jonah
Peter’s father was not called Jonah but Yohanan. This intentional error has to be connected to the response given earlier to the religious leaders. It is a momentous sign. Jesus is doing several things here:
- He has revealed to the Church he is the Christ, and the Son of Man;
- He has given Simon a new name confirming him as Peter the keeper of the keys to the Kingdom;
- He has revealed his divine filiation;
- He has announced the creation of His Church;
- He has given Peter ‘keys’ to bind and unbind anything on Earth and in Heaven, even the Gates of Hell symbolized there by the gates to the temple of Pan, the ruler of the lowest passions. The mission of Peter will be to absolve the consequences through the Sacrament of Confession thus liberating men from permanent slavery to their worse inclinations.
From then on, Peter is called to be alter Christus a mirror image of Christ on Earth. After all of that, Christ locks the mystery: He “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
The parable builds up
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Matthew 16:21-23)
If we take this whole chapter as a prophetic parable we can learn a lot about the Church and her mission from its beginnings with Christ until her arrival at the End Times. Here, the prophet Jonah is essential to understand how things will develop. Like the shapes in that Mandelbrot equation, God has prepared prophetic figures who will produce mirror images of themselves and serve as signs in time. I hope I can catch as many as there are there, although I’m afraid they are infinite.
Peter first encounter with the Cross fills him with horror. Pan (Satan) has taken hold of his heart: ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ The response of Christ falls on him like a bucket of cold water: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees appears: Peter is also expecting a different kind of Messiah. Peter loves Jesus but the belief of a triumphant Messiah is still in him. Imagine the fear in Peter’s heart.
“The Messiah crucified? No! Even the vilest criminals are sometimes spared the cross. There is nothing more humiliating and degrading than death on a Roman cross! No! He can’t die that way!”
The shape of history
I like to think that Peter’s rebuke is the end of a trajectory that represents the history of the papacy. My reasoning goes more or less like this:
When Peter, moved by the Holy Ghost recognizes Jesus as the Christ, he is at a pinnacle: he is with Jesus, God the Father reveals the highest mystery to him by means of the Holy Spirit. He is made the Vicar of Christ. That represents the Papacy that begins to cross the sea of History. The life of Peter represents at times the glories and travails of that voyage through time. But a different Peter will emerge in the end times. That Peter is the one represented in the rebuke when Peter rejects the idea of the Cross causing Jesus to call him “Satan”. In that last bitter age, a successor of Peter will reject the Cross and the very Vicariate of Christ, he will run from Rome in panic only to find Jesus coming the opposite way. That last Peter will try the way of Jonah but will find his own end on that hill prophesied to us by the seers of Fatima. In that vision we see a mirror similar to the one suggested by the upside-down crucifixion on the Roman Circus. In those terrible days Peter will look like a faint mirage of what a Pope should be. That Peter may even be controlled by the archenemy of Christ.
Quo Vadis Petre?
In the end Peter begins to look like a” son of Jonah”. He has spent his life hesitating. He did run and hide when Jesus was arrested, he did deny Jesus publicly, he hesitated to discipline the Judaizers, he did have to be prepared specifically to accept the gentiles into the Church (see Acts 10) and finally, when Nero begins persecuting the Christians of Rome Peter left his flock and run until his escape was interrupted by a vision of Jesus coming in the opposite direction, towards Rome.
Christ declares to Peter his intention to go to Rome and be crucified again because his Bishop has panicked. Peter understands the vision and returns to Rome. Christ has rebuked him again. In his last day, he understands and accepts the Cross: he is captured and then crucified upside down in the Circus. That is the same place where St. Peter’s Basilica stands today.
What is God telling us in the life of Peter? My guess is that just as Christ died for Adam’s progeny to become a new Adam, Peter represents the imperfect mankind trying to be like Christ and failing every time. We all know the keys that were given to the Fisherman, the Sacrament of Heaven trusted in the most unlikely human hands. In the life of Peter we see a reflection of that key, a facet of the Cross that is hidden from mere human understanding: a true disciple of Jesus must know he has to be like Him and fight his own human nature bravely to conform to the divine rules. Poor Peter was the first to call Jesus Lord and also the first to recognize it was nearly impossible to follow Christ perfectly:
‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ (Luke 5:7)
Peter offered his glorious martyrdom to God crucified upside down with his feet pointing up, ready to thread the heavenly fields running towards his Shepherd, his barque safely moored on the final shore.
That was most interesting. GK Chesterton loved to illuminate the paradoxes (just a few of them — I suspect their number approaches the infinite as you noted regarding prophetic reflections) of the faith. Paradox is an essential quality of God. It is unsolvable by us, but all paradox is resolved in God, who exists outside of time. He is both gentle and great, merciful and just, alpha and omega at once – and so on. He experiences being in the round (omnipresent) while we experience being from a point of view. We can only see where we are looking. Paradox for us produces anxious feelings.
Peter could not encompass the Son of God emptying himself of all glory, power, all worldly possessions and even His reputation to die in the contempt that the world reserves for a total loser – one who lost everything on the cross, even his seamless garment, which was divided. And by losing all he came into His everything and is seated at the right hand. Nor is it just in the spiritual realm that He won by losing, his church of the New Covenant grew until it supplanted the empire of Rome and pitched its throne in the seat of all worldly power.
It is ironic. It is also paradoxical. To be great one must humble oneself. Often one runs away from ones destination only to arrive there. It is a key part of the sign of Jonah. John O’ Hara wrote a lovely story about paradox and irony called Appointment in Samarra. Each of us has an appointment in the very place from which we are running.
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Now, this is a really interesting comment. Thank you!
Beautiful writing, Carlos, worthy of much reflection. Thank you 😊
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This excellent essay puts me in mind of Augustine’s wonderful City of God, written while, like us, he was watching the whole world come down around his ears. We all have a little Peter in us, don’t we? Just like him, we approach Jesus and the City of God, stay above the swirling waters for a few steps if we’re lucky, and then sink back into the City of Man, sucked down like Satan and enraptured by his promises.
It’s a bit much, for most of us, to search continuously for the crucifixion that repudiation of this world entails. The St. Catherines that live very little for this world and entirely for the next are few and far between. We know who they are because they are so very different from the rest of us. Still, those of us that come here for spiritual sustenance will strive on, denying Him one moment and seeking Him the next, just like Peter, seeking that which we know we are meant for.
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