The New Rock
Last week we read of Jesus being in the region of Tyre and Sidon and this week we meet Jesus and his disciples still in the North of Israel, but inland at Caesarea Phillippi.
Here, Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
When we look at the location of this event more closely, we see some fascinating details about Jesus’ words.
Caesarea Philippi was home to an ancient spring. The spring itself is masked by a dominant rock from which flows abundant and fresh water. At the time of Jesus, there was a Temple dedicated to the pagan god Pan built on the site.
Today, the location is known as Banias, which derives from the name Paneas, the pagan god of nature. Since the rocks also formed a cave, pagans believed that the area was a gate to the underworld where their fertility gods lived.
Given all these simple details of the area, what Jesus does then is alarmingly profound, especially to first century listeners.
After Peter correctly identifies Jesus as Messiah, Jesus then calls him πέτρα (Petra) which means ‘a mass of connected rock.’ On one level, Jesus incorporates the natural landscape of Caesarea Philippi with the rock in mind, and reclaims the site through Peter.
Rather than being a pagan place of worship, Jesus says, “on this rock I will build my Church.”
On another level, Jesus dethrones the authority of Herod, who gave the region to his son Philip, (which is where we get the name Caesarea Phillippi) as he names Peter, Petra.
Finally, Jesus says that “the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.” Since the pagans believed that the cave itself was the entrance to the underworld, Jesus asserts the power of the Church by, basically, erecting it right on top of the entrance to the pagan underworld.
Jesus essentially establishes the Church as a solid, unbroken, life-giving stream of God’s action in the world.
At times, it may seem like the Church is going in a strange direction, or that its leaders are blindly leading people astray, but let us be people of faith who hold onto the bold and everlasting words of Christ in our Gospel today.
Let’s also pray for our Church and its leaders, that the Spirit may help us to extend the reign of God to the whole of humanity.
Fr William Aupito Iuliano
Image Credit: Pietro Perugino, The Delivery of the Keys (c 1481–1482). Sistine Chapel, Vatican City | Public Domain