Jesus leads his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, a regional commerce center of the Roman Empire, located about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.
The city was built at the base of Mount Hermon, the northern border of Israel at the time, and from Mount Hermon flows a large spring feeding the Jordan River.
The spring emerges from a large cave which became the center of pagan worship, especially of the god Pan – the pagan god of the wild as well as shepherds and their flocks.
The city also had Roman political significance. Herod the Great named it after his patron, Julius Caesar, who regarded himself as a god.
And Herod’s son, Philip, added the Philippi to bring attention to himself and his power and control over the region.
So it is as Caesarea Philippi, where the Roman empire and the pagan gods competed for people’s attention and loyalty – that Jesus asks his disciples his profound question:
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
In response, they give him their Gallup Poll findings - each one identifying him with a dead prophet of the past: John the Baptist (who had recently been killed by Herod), Elijah, Jeremiah, or perhaps some other prophet.
But Jesus is more interested in their opinion, rather than the opinion of the crowds – after all, they had been with him for awhile by now.
So he asks them: but who do you say that I am.
And Simon Peter blurts out the correct answer, identifying Jesus as the Christ, which quite literally means “the anointed one” or the Messiah.
In other words Peter is asserting that they cannot depend on the pagan gods to save them. Nor will Caesar or any of his regional allies save them. When Simon Peter identifies Jesus as the anointed one – he is saying he knows that it is only Christ who can save them.
Jesus points out that Peter who we know so well – the one who almost drown because of his lack of faith, the one Jesus will call Satan in next Sunday’s Gospel –
that old foot in the mouth Peter could never have figured this out all by himself – Jesus knows that his heavenly Father has placed this answer in Peter’s heart.
And so like when Popes are elected, men and women religious profess their vows, or even when the young Church is Confirmed – when a major turning point in life occurs – it’s time for a new name - and Jesus calls Peter “the rock. The Rock upon which his Church will be built.”
And he gives Petrus, or Peter, or the Rock – the keys to the kingdom which Peter will use for the good of the Church.
Those keys will open the gates to eternity. The way to eternity will not be through the cave at the base of Mount Hermon filled with images of pagan gods –
it will not be through the might of the Roman empire and its legions of soldiers – but it will be through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This past Monday, the Church celebrated the feast day of the patron of our Catholic High School across the street – St. Pius X.
Unlike Shebna, the master of the palace in the first reading – who used the keys to the king’s palace for his own good – St. Pius X used the keys of his papacy for the good of the Church wanting to “restore all things in Christ.”
He wanted the prince of peace to reign – especially as he saw building hostilities in Europe.
Saint Pius shied away from many of the royal trappings of the papacy – often complaining to his friends about how those in the Vatican fussed over him and dressed him up with finery.
Today, we ask for his intercession, as we see building hostilities among people even in our own country and Church – much less throughout the world – and as we answer the same question of Jesus – addressed to each one of us:
Who do you say that I am?
Like the disciples gathered at Caesarea Philippi – we also live with forces competing for our allegiance.
The false gods of today are perhaps more subtle than the pagan gods.
The gods that tempt us might be wealth, or fame, or glamor, or pleasure. All of these make us an empty promise of happiness or success.
But gathering here at Mass is a first step of acknowledging we don’t follow after those other gods – but our allegiance, our loyalty is with Christ our Savior.
Saying that in here, with the comfort of being surrounded by our friends and family in faith – is one thing — leaving here and actually living this allegiance is something else.
No, we also have to live our faith – to show others by our actions that love is stronger than hate.
That putting ourselves last is the way to become first.
And that dying to ourselves will give us a share in the rising of Jesus Christ.
We proclaim by our words AND our actions that we remain members of the Body of Christ, the Catholic Church and this parish – because we trust the promise that the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against us.
A woman came home one evening from Church and encountered a thief in her house busy taking her valuables. Being a woman of faith and familiar with the Scriptures she shouted: Stop! Acts 2:38!!
For those of us who don’t know the Scriptures as well as she did, Acts 2:38 reads: “Repent and be Baptized in the name of Christ so your sins may be forgiven.”
When he heard the woman shout, the thief stopped in his tracks, sat down and put his hands behind his head.
The woman calmly called the police – and when they arrived, the man was still sitting there - as she explained everything that had taken place.
As the police handcuffed him and began to lead him to the squad car – one officer asked him: “how did a simple Scripture verse get you to stay until we arrived - why did you not just run off.”
“Scripture verse?” the thief said. “I thought she said she had— an ax and two 38s!”
The woman, however, was not surprised at all. As she knew from past experience, her faith would get her through anything.
Evidently, so too, did the woman in today’s Gospel. As Jesus eventually says to her: “O woman, great is your faith.”
The ending of this Gospel story we can certainly agree with – but the beginning may be a bit hard for us to swallow or to understand.
A poor woman asks Jesus for a favor – and he not only ignores her – but he even insults her by calling her a dog.
What was going on? Was Jesus — testing her faith? Was he so preoccupied by his primary mission to the Jewish people that he could not deal with anyone else? Was Jesus just reflecting the cultural prejudices of his day against the Canannites: ancient enemies of the Isrealites. – Or was Jesus just being somewhat playful?
After all, dogs were kept as pets in Jesus’ day and “dog” does not always mean something bad.
Way back in my seminary days at St. Meinrad in Indiana, I had a roommate who got up, always a little bit too cheery in the morning -
would look at himself in the mirror and say, “Oh you handsome dog, you!” Granted his good looks were exceeded only by his humility!!
What was going on when Jesus refers to this woman as a dog?
Well, let’s admit, we will never know for sure – because for instance, we don’t have the benefit of Jesus’ inflections or his tone of voice, or his facial expressions or gestures – all of which often times speak louder than the words themselves.
Let’s look at the Gospel, then, from the point of view of our own reaction to it.
Why are we so uncomfortable with Jesus’ treatment of this woman – or at least I should say – my discomfort with it. . .
Is it because we think Jesus or God should never say NO to us?
Is it because we think Jesus should answer every request that comes his way?
Is it because we think God should never force us to ask for something more than once?
Whether we are aware of it or not – we all have our expectations of how we think God should act. But sometimes God doesn’t fit those expectations. . .
How many times have we ourselves felt like this woman – that God was ignoring us – giving us the cold shoulder – or even offensively telling us to go away?
And what do we do when God says NO to us? Do we keep on asking, like this woman of faith - do we get angry and vow to never turn to God again for any of our needs? Or do we peacefully say: thy will be done?
Sometimes we do just have to accept what comes our way as the will of God – but other times, Jesus encourages us not to give up praying: keep asking, keep knocking – Jesus has told us in some of his parables.
Today’s Gospel is a good example of faith and perseverance in prayer.
It also strikes me as a good example of praying to the saints and asking other people to pray for us. Notice that the women went to the apostles and asked them for help as even they wanted Jesus to send her away “for she keeps calling out after US.”
But that must have worked, and Jesus found he could not ignore her any more. We don’t always understand the dynamic of prayer - as we don’t always know the mind of God. >>
But Jesus said there is great power in united prayer. He will remind us in a couple of weeks “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray – it will be granted to them by my heavenly Father.”
My own personal opinion of what was happening in today’s Gospel – is that Jesus was simply tired and worn down. . .
He recently heard of the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. And most of us know how exhausting grief can be.
He had recently gone home to Nazareth and could do not do any mighty works because of their unbelief. And many of us know how rejection of any kind can zap our joy.
He had battled the scribes and Pharisees multiple times in the last few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel – and last week had to deal with the lack of faith of his closest followers.
I think Jesus was simply tired and worn down –
How many times have you or I said or did things when we were tired, that we wish we could re-do later after a nap or a day off? But Jesus is going to keep at it – perhaps this encounter with the Canaanite woman allows him to re-focus – and recommit himself to his pastoral ministry.
But just like clockwork – next week Jesus will have to deal with the lack of faith of his closest followers.
Let us ask God for the grace we need – to stay awake and alert to the needs of others – even when we think we simply can’t do one more thing. . .
The reason we have the Bible, and the Eucharist and the other Sacraments. The reason we have faith at all - and come here week after week to nourish our faith – is because God loves us. And God wants to be in a relationship with us.
A relationship which God does not want to force upon us - but one that we freely embrace and nurture.
God loves us. And God wants to be in a relationship with us - and so God is continually revealing to us who God is and what God’s love is like.
That’s why, as St. Paul tells us, there was a covenant, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
why there were patriarchs, and from them, the ultimate expression of God’s love: the sending of Christ to dwell among us.
God loves us. And God wants to be in a relationship with us - and just like in our earthly relationships - so to with our relationship with the divine - there needs to be communication - in order for the relationship to be nurtured and to grow.
Sometimes God communicates with us in a way that is powerful and unmistakable– like Peter, James and John experienced in the Transfiguration of Jesus last weekend.
Or the communication may not be in thunder and earthquakes as often happened in the Old Testament -
although if we can stand in awe before the wonders of nature - we certainly can hear God communicating to us.
God may speak to us through a special healing or a prayer answered that we never thought possible - as some of you, I know, have recently had happen to you.
These moments are worth treasuring. They are important to hold onto and remember when it seems God is quiet – for one of God’s favored ways of communicating with us is in — silence.
Like the prophet Elijah, we often need to quiet our lives so we can discover God in the depth of our own hearts. And when we are able to let the Lord take us by our hand and lead and guide us - our eyes are usually a bit more open -
and then we are able to see and hear God all over the place - communicating love, care, and concern, and forgiveness, and acceptance – to us.
When I was preparing my homily this week, I came across a reflection on today’s readings by a Chicago priest: Fr. Dominic Grassi – who is not only a pastor but also the author of several books: a couple are – Still called by name: why I like being a priest // and// Living the Mass: how one hour a week can change your life.
Fr. Dominic writes in a homily: one of the most popular nicknames for our city of Chicago is the “windy city”. Most people think the name comes from the sometimes very strong winds that blow into the city from Lake Michigan.
But, he said, Chicago was dubbed the “windy city” because of its history of long-winded politicians who would promise voters everything during a campaign – and give them very little after elected.
Now I don’t want to doubt Fr. Dominic’s words – but they do lead me to ask the question - why, then, isn’t every city in the nation referred to as the windy city??
Anyway, Fr. Dominic then applied this “windy city approach” to the Church. Currently, he thinks, people have deep concerns about the church – why not women priests?
Why is their little accountability for bishops, priests, and others - especially when they mess things up. . .
How are we going to continue to sustain the buildings that have been built over the centuries - with fewer numbers of Catholics to fill them?
What happened to all the religious women that used to staff our schools?
Or the question on many minds of parents: how can I get my adult children to go to Mass?
Many people, including myself from time to time - are self-appointed experts on just about every problem in the Church and have a solution for every problem. . . We wouldn’t have these problems if people would just listen to us – or do things our way.
But sometimes all our talking and problem solving, especially if we dwell only on the negatives – can get in the way of living out the Gospel of Jesus in our lives.
Perhaps the readings for today are telling us not to be so “windy”. After all, Elijah finds God not in the strong wind, or the earthquake – but in a tiny whisper.
The wind scares the apostles to the point where Peter almost drowns and needs Jesus to save him. And so Jesus calms the winds.
God loves us. God wants to be in a relationship with us – and so God communicates with us: sometimes in a strong and heavy wind. Sometimes in the crushing of rocks or in earthquakes or in fire – however those things come crashing into our lives.
But most times - God comes in the silence.
Fr. Dominic concluded his reflections by saying: maybe if we talked less and listened more – it would be better for us and for the Church.
So following that advice - let’s take a few moments to quiet ourselves – and to listen – and let God speak to us.
Moments in time...