In today's readings, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah. This episode in the Gospel of Mark happened in Caesarea Philippi. Peter's profession indicates that he understood Jesus to be the one who would fulfill the promises associated with the restoration of Israel. The same story, as related in the Gospel of Matthew relates that Peter also declared Jesus to be the Son of the Living God. Jesus confirmed this declaration as a truth revealed by God.
Does the context shed light on the significance of Peter's profession? King Herod had built over the headwaters flowing out of Mt. Hermon a statue to Caesar which honored the emperor as a son of god. The placement of this monument would have associated Caesar with Pan, a fertility deity to whom the abundance of life-giving water in that place was attributed. In other words, Caesar was honored as a source of life. And so he seemed to be. All the political, financial and military honor and glory were undeniably his. Those who were his friends flourished. Those who opposed him seem to be opposing the very powers of heaven. Indeed, all the kingdoms of the world were in one way or another bowed down before him.
It would have been as difficult then as it is now not to be dazzled, not to look at this temple to Caesar as somehow iconic for the aspirations of mankind, worthy of submitting all of one's life energy to serve. But political systems and ideologies promising salvation have always had this effect on us: they always make a claim for an absolute allegiance of our lives and resources that really ought only be given to God. Ironically and revealingly, in this case, there is nothing left of this monument today except for niches cut into the cliff around the cave where these waters once flowed. Who could ever have imagined that things would change, and that this site would be an almost forgotten footnote were it not for the discussion Christ had there with Peter and the Apostles? Philip's declaration concerning Caesar, based on what he could observe and what seemed to make sense in the world as he imagined it to be, proved to be false over time. But what of Peter's declaration?
Against the pageantry and glory of Rome, Peter declared instead Jesus and the Christ of Israel as the Son of the Living God. When he did this, he placed in opposition to the overwhelming political power of his day a poor unknown barbarian teacher from an obscure province with no political, military or financial influence. Following the way of this Christ was the source of true life. The Lord confirmed that this profession of faith was not proposed by any mere man (as was the declarations concerning Caesar) but rather from God himself - whom Jesus reveals as the Heavenly Father.
Then, irony points to paradox. After Jesus tries to explain to disciples what it means to be the source of life, Peter opposes Jesus. Jesus declared that he would have to be rejected, suffer and die. This would be the complete opposite of what Peter believed he was professing only moments before. Titles that should indicate divine power, restoration of lost glory, and vindication against injustice; Jesus now interprets in terms of vulnerability, humiliation, and even ignoble suffering unto death. Peter attempts to interceed with him, to get the Lord to change his mind. On this point, Jesus is severe with his disciple, revealing the true meaning of Peter's opposition. He admonishes Peter, the one to whom he had just attributed a revelation of the Heavenly Father, as Satan, an adversary.
How paradoxical this mixture of good and evil in the human heart and what an important reminder for all those the Lord has chosen to follow Him, for all those who aspire to serve Him! Encountering the Lord in our own prayer means exposing ourselves to his judgments and revisiting our true motives. We often have that painful realization that there are parts of us that are not godly, that are severely limited by our own broken human perspective. This poverty, this brokeness is why the real adversaries of the Church are not those from without who persecute or reject the faith, but those from within who fear where our faith leads: the glory of heaven is revealed in humiliations, rejection and all kinds of trials which pull the Christian beyond all the natural capacity for love - it is here where every human hope dies that a deeper hope, divine love triumphs.
Christian prayer ponders how Jesus not only fulfills the promises of the Scriptures, but also fulfills the needs and longings of every people. How did the Romans know that humanity needs to be understood in relation to the divine? That they saw the need to hold up for worship someone who connects the heavens and the earth suggests that in the hearts of men and women of every culture and historical period there lives some kind of awareness that human existence is meant to be governed by something more than human, something above nature, something divine. Because it speaks to this awareness, Peter's profession is, in a certain sense, the beginning of the evangelization of not only Israel but the whole world. To be fruitful, however, we must not oppose Jesus in prayer. We must follow him by the way not earthly power and influence, but by way of the Cross, and the Cross alone.