Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
I heard someone described as “a priestly priest,” and wondered what it meant. Whatever it might mean, it is probably something as irritating as the expression “a painterly painter.” It meant, at any rate, that that priest matched perfectly somebody’s idea of a priest – an uncertain distinction in itself. A confrere of mine received a standing ovation after a sermon, and was glowing for days, until another confrere said to him, “I shouldn’t be so happy about it: Jesus preached and they crucified him; you preached and they gave you a standing ovation!”
Jesus was the exact opposite of what he was expected to be: he was an unmessianic Messiah. In the popular mind, the Messiah was expected to be a powerful military and political leader who would bring his people to victory over all their enemies, in the name of God of course. When Peter called him Messiah, he was “sternly rebuked” and told not to repeat it. Instantly Jesus began to speak of suffering instead: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be put to death” (today’s reading). Suffering and death were no part of the image of Messiah, but rather victory.
Christians speak of Christ’s “victory over sin and death.” He achieved this victory not by killing but by dying. St Augustine said he was “victor and victim; and victor because he was the victim.” This striking expression reverses all our notions about victory and defeat. Indeed the Cross of Christ reverses all our values: success and failure, power and weakness, glory and shame, wealth and poverty, belonging and rejection, even life and death…. His greatest disciples understood this well: St Paul wrote, “I will not boast, except of my weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:5), and “when I am weak then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). It is only by the grace of God that this revolution can shape our lives. We are blessed if we experience it at all, even if only in special moments. The hierarchy of the Western Church moved quite comfortably into the Imperial world of power and palaces and purple – the original secularisation of the Church. A cardinal in all his regalia is a much more secularised figure than a priest in scruffy denim. But fundamentally secularisation is a state of mind. What matters is that a disciple should “have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).