ON THE WAY TO CÆSAREA PHILIPPI
THE BLIND MAN OF BETHSAIDA RETREAT TOWARD CÆSAREA THE IMPORTANT QUESTION: "WHO DO MEN SAY THAT I AM?" THE OPINIONS OF THE PEOPLE PETER'S STRIKING CONFESSION TU ES CHRISTUS SIMON'S MERIT TU ES PETRUS THE INDEFECTIBLE CHURCH SHALL HAVE A HEAD JESUS FORETELLS HIS OWN DEATH THE SCANDAL BECAUSE OF THE MESSIAH'S HUMILIATION HARD LESSON GIVEN TO PETER BEAUTIFUL TEACHING GIVEN THE MULTITUDE CONCERNING THE CHRISTIAN SPIRIT. (St. Matthew xvi, 1328; St. Mark viii, 2238, and ix, 1; St. Luke ix, 1827.)
JESUS and His disciples disembarked on the northern shore of the lake. This was Philip's territory. Therefore they no longer had reason to fear any hostile attack attempted under the patronage of Antipas. The two brothers, as we have already said, bore no resemblance to each other, either in their political views or in their private conduct. Philip had succeeded in procuring his own happiness and that of his subjects by living without external show, free from disturbing ambition, occupied solely in the building of new cities within his states or in the embellishing of those already established.
But was it on the eastern bank of the Jordan that they landed? Nothing obliges us to believe so, for although He meant to escape, for a time, from the jurisdiction of Herod, it is not clear that Jesus had absolutely bound Himself to flee from it in His latest Apostolic journeyings. It is certain that He had decided not to appear in any center of importance except Jerusalem. Why admit that He made an exception in favor of Julias? We are therefore inclined to believe, in opposition to the general opinion, that they disembarked simply near Bethsaida, Peter's home, and that there they were enabled to leave the boat in safe hands, while they went to spend a few days among the foothills of Hermon.
Our supposition is strengthened by the fact that Jesus was so well known as a thaumaturgus in Bethsaida1 that no sooner had He arrived than He saw some of the people coming to Him with a blind man and eagerly asking Him to cure him by simple touch. It was a good opportunity to show to the Apostles that His power had not diminished. He therefore consented to work this miracle. But in order to avoid the assembling of a crowd and other similar demands, He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town,2 into the country. There, with some preliminaries worthy of notice, He proceeded to cure him.
The blind man had not come to Jesus of his own accord. He had been dragged into His presence or even carried there, as the text seems to say. He therefore had scarcely any faith in the Messiah. It was necessary to arouse what little he had. This is why the miracle, instead of being sudden, is worked only gradually together with the growth of the man's faith itself. Jesus began by putting spittle upon the eyes of the unfortunate man. Then, imposing His hands upon him, He asked him if he saw anything. The blind man tried to look and said: "I see men, as it were trees walking." He had not been born blind, but had become so; otherwise how could he have formed such an idea of men or of trees in motion. His first step toward the cure excites in his soul not only the desire of being perfectly cured, but also a strong confidence in this charitable physician. It is at this moment, when his faith becomes complete, that the miracle becomes so too. Jesus again touched the blind man's eyes with His hands, and the light thoroughly penetrated them. The man at once proclaimed that he clearly discerned all things as he did before he became blind.
Sending him to his home, Jesus simply gave him this advice: "Go into thy house, and if thou enter into the town, tell nobody." Thus was the Master forced, after having done good, to demand silence as a first requital of His charity.
Without further delay, He again departed in search of a refuge more retired elsewhere. For as He retraced His steps along the banks of the Jordan, He passed near the basalt bridge of the daughters of Jacob, and thence along the eastern shore of the Lake of Merom, and finally, through groves of oleander and terebinth, to the regions where the sacred river has its source.
Following His custom, He probably passed by Cæsarea, Philip's capital city, without visiting it. The great centers, as we have said, did not please Him. The sight of the corruption, the idolatry, the servility, that was officially spread before Him, had a repellent effect upon His pure and proudly untrammeled soul. Perhaps also prudence counseled Him not to encounter face to face the foremost representatives of the public power, who might with one powerful stroke disturb the economy of the Messianic plan. That is why He did not announce His gospel either in Tiberias or in Tyre, in Sidon, in Sichem, or in Samaria, although He encountered them on His way. Cæsarea, in particular, was full of painful memories of the past and of the immoral exhibition of paganism in the present. Above the ancient city of Dan, which had witnessed the adoration of the Golden Calf, the Greeks had built Paneas, the city consecrated to Pan. In a deep grotto they adored this god of shepherds; and marble nymphs and satyrs sported around this picturesque sanctuary. Philip, regardless of the pagan customs of Paneas, had established there the seat of his government and had wonderfully embellished the City.3 The name of CæsareaPhilippi, which it bore, honored at the same time both the Cæsar of Rome4 and the tetrarch who had just restored it.
Jesus spent some days in the neighboring towns, devoting Himself to the preaching of the Gospel. The irresistible charm of His words, the superhuman character of His works, His inexhaustible kindness, readily gained over to Him the inhabitants of a country half Jewish, half idolatrous, and His ministry was not without its fruits. The Apostles, more tranquil here than in Galilee, had time to examine closely the life, the virtues, and the superior nature of their Master. He Himself was happy to see them searching into the various data of the problem, for He was preparing to propose to them the decisive question on which seemed to depend the religious future of mankind.
Had they, at least, who now for so long a time had been listening to His teaching, witnessing His miracles, hearing the aspirations of His soul, a real faith in His Messianic character? And if they had, were their hearts so deeply penetrated with it that nothing, not even the scandal of the cross, could finally endanger it? This is what must be known.
In truth, the hour might seem poorly chosen for demanding a precise and positive profession of faith from impressionable men who, as regards the person of their Master, never had any but fleeting, transient ideas which betrayed themselves in exclamations more enthusiastic than reasonable. For some days Jesus had performed scarcely any miracles, and the multitudes, filled with admiration and hope, had disappeared, while He Himself, proscribed, seemed to escape the fury of His enemies only by fleeing into desert places and among idolatrous peoples.
And yet this was the psychological moment that Jesus chose to put His solemn question. Previously He had spent a while in selfrecollection beneath His Father's eye, and had prayed for those whose faith He was about to test. His soul was visibly perplexed. This is not surprising, since God Himself, notwithstanding the knowledge which He has of the future, seems to await in anxiety the response of the man whom temptation tries. He rejoined the Apostles, and, having walked with them some time in silence,5 suddenly He asked them: "Who do men say that the Son of Man is?"6 This abrupt question betrayed the holy impatience of His soul. The Apostles replied: "Some, John the Baptist, and other some, Elias, and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets." Thus, after the fulfillment of all the Messianic prophecies, after fifteen months of miracles and so many lessons of truly divine wisdom, Jesus seemed to the people nothing more than an extraordinary man, a precursor of the Messiah. To some His influence over the multitudes gives the idea that He is John the Baptist, risen again to chastise Herod and to return the sceptre to the royal race of Juda. To others, the courageous eloquence with which He checks His adversaries, His astonishing activity, His proud independence give rise to the supposition that He is Elias, come to prepare the realization of their theocratic dreams. Many, carried away by the note of His preaching, which was as penetrating as remorse, and touched, too, by His air of sad resignation and His suggestion of melancholy, which recall Jeremias weeping in the midst of his fellowcitizens, take Him for that prophet. Finally, the majority appreciate His part in Israel only in a general way, and, seeing His powerful works, are content to say that one of the ancient great servants of God has come back to life.
This account of the popular impressions seemed as sincere as it was complete. On hearing it, Jesus manifested no sign of the painful emotion that was breaking His heart. Great souls frequently maintain perfect serenity beneath the hardest strokes of injustice. In a loftier world they hear the applause that consoles them for insults here below. In the joys of the hypostatic union Jesus found strength to be at all times greater than human baseness and stronger than the ingratitude of those to whom He had done favors.
After all, this was only the opinion of the multitude; the Apostolic college had reserved its own; and this, if correct, might well comfort Him for the insufficiency of the former. What was their idea of their Master? They must be forced to declare it. Their reply would say if the Church, was yet unborn, or if, in fine, by a splendid profession of faith, she deserved to be accepted henceforward as a living reality.
With an especial solemnity that bade them weigh well their response and in a tenderly reproachful tone that seemed to dictate its sense, He said: "And who do you say that I am?" In the grave and dignified attitude of a father deferring his cause to the tribunal of his children, Jesus stood before them, with folded arms, penetrating them no doubt with His powerful gaze, while He awaited their reply. Peter had it all ready, and, by his ardent, impressionable nature, accustomed to speak the first, he gave way to none on this occasion. "Thou," he exclaimed, with the tone of conviction of a man inspired, "Thou art the CHRIST, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD." As we hear this fervent, freespoken declaration, we seem yet to see the sinewy hand of the son of Jona stretched out energetically toward Jesus to accentuate with special vigor this admirable profession of faith. It was a sublime scene; every one's soul vibrated in unison with that of Peter. The Master was filled with happiness. The Church had formulated its first creed.7 Henceforth nothing shall be final or authentic unless it pass by this same mouth of Simon Peter, who is become the official organ of the Apostolate. The ardor of his faith, the spontaneity of his testimony, the sincerity of his love, have gained him this high prerogative. Several, perhaps, believed and loved as much as he; but, more timid or less enthusiastic, they had stood there embarrassed. By being the first to speak, Peter has won a primacy of honor and jurisdiction that will be his forever. From this time forth it will be his prerogative to teach and govern the Church, with that immovable stability which Jesus had foreseen when, looking upon him for the first time, He had surnamed him Peter or Rock.
"Blessed art thou, Simon BarJona," He said to him, His eyes beaming with divine joy; "because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but My Father who is in heaven!" Flesh and blood would have told him what they had told the Pharisees, His enemies, or, at most, what they had told the people who were blinded by a kind of halfbelief. It is light from above that reveals to him the Master's divine physiognomy in its true color. Thus, again, in the succession of ages, it will be to heavenly inspiration and not to the human preoccupations of a vain science or of a timid philosophy, that Peter will turn to gather the universal tradition of the Church, and to dictate the rule of our faith. Asking from God alone strength and light, he shall not, when he must speak as the head of the faithful, know the failures of passion or of error.
Here and now, he is to receive official assurance of this immunity; and since he has proclaimed what he thought of the Master, the Master desires to tell before all what He will do for him. "And I say to thee," Jesus goes on, "that thou art Peter, and upon this rock8 I will build my church,9 and the gates10 of hell shall not prevail against it." He speaks in the future, because He Himself is still alive. The royal succession is not begun. As long as He is in this world, another head of the new society would appear superfluous. To Him alone belongs the burden of its care. But when He shall have quitted earth, although still remaining the real head of the Church, He will be no longer its visible head. Then He will have recourse to an intermediary who shall govern the Church for Him. This intermediary is to be the very Apostle whom He has just selected. Peter, however, must not be appalled at his mission. If he is officially to represent the Master, he may be sure that his personal views, his prejudices, and his preferences shall be silent, and that God alone will inspire his speech. Whenever he shall have to resist, challenge, or combat, strength from on high shall sustain him against his enemies. More lasting than the rock of Paneas on which the hand of man has just erected a temple to Augustus, and which the storms, the generations, the ages shall gradually wear away, the rock planted by God shall stand eternally.11 Its stability shall be the very stability of the Church. It is the Church's essential basis; and though it must be granted that the foundation is not the entire structure, we must, at the same time, acknowledge that without the foundation the structure would not exist.
To mistake the great law of the Christian hierarchy according to which Simon Peter and his successors are, by right, the heads of the Church would be, therefore, to destroy the first thought in the divine plan, to deny what the Master affirms, and to substitute an oligarchy for the most perfect of monarchical systems. For Jesus, continuing His promise, declares that Peter has not simply a passive Primacy, serving as a support to the mass of the Church, but also an active primacy, in the absolute influence which he shall exercise over all the flock. He will be a government as well as a foundation. "And I will give to thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven." The key is given only to the father of the family, to the master of the house or of the town. If the Church is a society, Peter shall be its Head; if it is a kingdom, he shall be its King; if a flock, he shall be its Shepherd, gathering or scattering the sheep in his prudent judgment, granting or repressing the title of citizen, opening or closing the door of his house.
This house is the Church in time, but in eternity the Church becomes heaven.
Such is the manner in which the Savior's question had called forth the Apostles' profession of faith; this profession of faith had proved the life of the Church; the Church had received a head and a promise of perpetual indefectibility. This was more than sufficient to make this incident the most important and most productive event since the first days of the Messiah's ministry. The Master had just proved that His longcontinued efforts had led the Apostles to recognize Him as the Christ. This first definite result obtained, He could now undertake to teach them what sort of Christ and Messiah He was to be.
Here began for the disciples, in a most unexpected form, the revelation of the second part of the divine plan. Events followed each other rapidly; the hatred of His enemies pursuing Jesus even into Galilee made it plain that sad and tragic events were soon to take place. It was time bravely to face the troublous periods that were approaching. First of all, happy though He was at the Apostles' act of faith, Jesus strongly advised them, however, not to preach that He was the Christ. Such a declaration on their part would have excited terrible fury in some and dangerous enthusiasm in others. They must prudently guard the faith they have in the depth of their hearts and complete it by believing, however painful it may be, in a Messiah suffering and humiliated as the necessary preliminary of a Messiah triumphant and glorious. True faith could feel no hesitation. In Jesus it saw not only the Christ that was looked for, but also the Christ that was to be crucified.
For the moment the Apostles, who admitted the first of the two articles of this rudimentary creed, energetically rejected the other. They could see in it only a scandalous paradox. Jesus is not unaware of this, but nevertheless He determines to assert it. Their eyes must become accustomed, now by sudden and awful illuminations, and again by dim halflights, to the terrible prospect of Calvary. Their present faith seems able to endure a first blow. He inflicts it without delay. The broad track of the lightningstroke with which He now draws aside the veil of the future, will expose before them the bloody sacrifice with all its horrible details.
And, indeed, according to the providential plan, which Jesus soon lays before them, the Son of Man must repair to Jerusalem, the very center of hostilities. There He shall suffer all the woes and disgrace that the fury of the Scribes, the Chief Priests, and the Ancients of the people can suggest, until He shall have been done to death. Yet, even in the face of this catastrophe, His triumph is not to be despaired of. For the victory of His enemies shall be but momentary, and He, stronger than death, shall rise again the third day to enter into everlasting glory. This in a few words is what they are approaching. As one of the Evangelists observes in connection with this, "He spoke the word openly."12 Formerly it was the Temple, the brazen serpent, Jonas, that served Him as emblems in prophesying these mysterious events, and His allusions were not understood. From now on He relates the history of His passion with a steadiness of gaze and a firmness of soul that startle and overwhelm His hearers.
His disciples were, in fact, stupefied, overwhelmed, shocked. Peter, who stood near Him, still proud of the success of his profession of faith, sought, in his indignant affection, to take Him aside and to reproach Him for speaking thus. "Lord, be it far from Thee," he said to Him, "this shall not be unto Thee!" His admiration for the Master, his friendship, his faith, everything in him deprived him of the power of considering even the possibility of such a misfortune. Besides, if the wicked were capable of plotting such a thing, was not Jesus far more able to offset it? In all this Peter was judging according to human views. He was forgetful that there could be and that there was, in fact, something above any human will, namely: the divine justice. This demanded a complete and infinite expiation; hence had Jesus uttered that decisive word which Peter had not noticed: "The Son of Man must13 suffer the fury of the, wicked." To deter the Master from accepting the great sacrifice was a proof that he had not understood the mystery of His mission into the world; it was tempting the ManGod, as the spirit of darkness had done, to renounce the redemption of man, so that He might avoid suffering. Filled with holy indignation and suffering him to go no farther,14 Jesus turned upon His rash disciple, and with a word humiliated him whom He had honored shortly before, and chastised him for this thoroughly human counsel, as before He had rewarded him for an inspiration all divine: "Get thee behind Me, Satan, thou art a scandal to Me; because thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men."
Jesus gave this severe lesson to Peter in the presence of all the disciples. If He treated him harshly, it was because He saw behind him all the Apostles with the same thought and the same objections. Therefore, after this sharp rebuke, He resumed the drift of His remarks in order to lift the lesson to a higher plane and at the same time deepen its significance. He made a sign to the people to draw nearer. "If any man will come after Me," He said, "let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me!" So the true disciple of the Gospel must first of all put aside all dreams of human glory, of wellbeing, of pleasure, of wealth, of temporal dominion. Christianity has nothing in common with these vanities. The members of the new society must prove their vocation sincere by repudiating without exception the illusions of selfish and carnal Judaism. To accept Jesus and His doctrine is to take upon one's shoulder the emblem of death and the renouncement of human joys; it is to accept freely the punishment of the condemned man, who carries the cross and walks with it through the city, knowing that he is to die thereon. The Christian, in truth, is destined to stretch himself upon the fatal tree, even though others may not nail him to it. Dead to his passions, to evil longings, to the old man, dead, perhaps, even physically, is what one must become in choosing to follow Jesus Christ.
This symbol of a cruel and humiliating death, borrowed from the punishment of the cross, was evidently to some extent prophetic. The disciples will understand this later on. Sanctified and glorified by the blood of the Savior, the infamous gibbet shall become the yoke beneath which all lovingly bow their heads, and those only shall be true Christians who know how to live and die at the foot of the Tree of Redemption.
These radical theories were received by all as a paradox. Jesus, paying no heed to their protests, at once resumed His thought under another form. His object was to encourage them to make the sacrifice He demanded. "For whosoever will save his life," He went on, "shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel, shall save it." For to seek to preserve one's life according to the material notions of earth, is to sacrifice it by forcing it to vegetate without true light, without virtues, without hope for eternity; it is to prefer the transitory to the eternal. Who does this, desires the vanity of a dream, and he shall have it and shall die of hunger. While, on the other hand, he who gives his life to bear testimony to the truth either in word, or in work, or even to the shedding of his blood, is certain to find it again strong and glorious and henceforth immortal, after the sacrifice which he has offered is completed. "For what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?" Can anything counterbalance a treasure which is the whole of man? Whatever we may acquire during the present life, however precious it may seem, is only for a while, and then it slips from our grasp; the soul's lot will be unchangeable for eternity. These two thoughts constitute true wisdom, and throw a clear light on our most essential duties.
They must needs, therefore, put an end to earthly hopes regarding the Master. He forbids such to His true disciples. Earthly things are too ephemeral to find any place in the Kingdom of the Son of God. No doubt the Messiah will come later on as King, clad in the robes of triumph; not in vain have they read this in the prophets; but, then, time having reached its term, His subjects shall be the elect, His empire heaven, His era eternity. He will appear in the midst of the glory of the Father, surrounded by the angels, a true MessiahKing, He will render to each one according to his merits in the solemn distribution of His justice. Then, "He that shall be ashamed of Me," says Jesus, "and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man shall be ashamed, when He shall come in His majesty."
If they think that this manifestation seems to be too long deferred, they must not forget that it is soon to have a prelude capable of satisfying all their impatience. "Amen, I say to you," continues the Master, "there are some of them that stand here, who shall not taste death till they see the Kingdom of God coming in power." Jesus could not delay the inauguration of His spiritual triumph on earth. He will cast down the idols, strike the wicked, and enlighten the heathen. Then, raising His cross up above the world, proclaimed to all peoples by the Apostles who will go before Him like a legion of Angels, glorified by His Father Who will sustain and bless His work, He will establish the greatest, noblest, most universal kingdom that has ever existed. It is the near approach of the kingdom of truth, of justice, and of love, the preparation for the Kingdom of Heaven, that must be awaited. Happy he who shall be worthy to be inscribed therein, and to taste of the joys thereof!
Such was the end of this discourse, which gave a new horizon to the teaching of the Master. Once again a division must have occurred among the disciples. There was, indeed, sufficient reason for some to exclaim: "This is a hard and even horrible saying. Who can endure it?" Better even than the words uttered in the Synagogue at Capharnaum were these calculated to revolt those whom the Master commanded not only to eat His flesh and drink His blood, but also to die themselves upon His cross.
1 This is very easily understood if it refers to that Bethsaida, which, like Corozain and Capharnaum, had, to its own condemnation, witnessed so many miracles accomplished within its walls. (St. Matt. xi, 21.)
2 St. Mark twice uses the term kwmh, which could not be said of Julias and which confirms our opinion.
3 Antiq., xviii, 3. See Notre Voyage aux Pays Bibliques, vol. ii, p. 274 et seq.
4 The modern village of Banias recalls the site and the name of the ancient town. The ruins there are as beautiful as they are numerous. The grotto Consecrated to the god Pan is still seen with its sculptured niches and its Pagan inscriptions.
5 St. Luke ix, 18, who says nothing of Jesus' journey to Cæsarea, supposes that this scene took place in some unknown locality, and just as the Master finished praying. Evidently he did not have before his eyes the other two Synoptics telling that the Savior was at the time in the neighborhood of CæsareaPhilippi. St. Mark viii, 27, observes that the question was asked en th odw, as they went along.
6 The text of St. Matthew variously punctuated may have the following meanings in addition to the one above: "Who do men say that I am? The Son of Man?" or "Who do they say I am, Who am the Son of Man?" or again, "What Son of Man do they say I am?" The two other Synoptics represent Jesus as saying simply, "Who do men say that I am?"
7 No doubt, upon several other occasions the disciples had recognized the Messianic character of Jesus, but it was in the agitation of enthusiasm, or, so to speak, of surprise, that they had let their confession fall from their lips. Here their minds are calm. The question gives them the opportunity for reflection, and the reply is the exact expression of most certain convictions.
8 The Greek translation of St. Matthew has not entirely preserved the play upon words which is found in the original SyroChaldaic, and which may be found also in the French rendering. Kepha was at the same time the word signifying a rock, and the name given to Simon. Not venturing to give to a man a name with a feminine ending, the author of the Greek text puts it: åu ei Petros, kai tauth th petta. Nevertheless he could have employed the word petros instead of petra in the second member of the phrase, and would have been authorized by excellent authors (see the Oedipus Tyrannus, 1. 349; Herodotus, ix, 55, etc.) if he did not wish to use petra to designate Simon himself.
9 This is the first time that Jesus calls the society of the faithful the Church. Inasmuch as on this day she takes possession of life, it is right that she should receive also her name. Henceforth this name, vague in its ordinary meaning, like the word synagogue, will denote exclusively the society of Christians.
10 Among the people of the Orient, the gates signify power, in figurative language, since it was at the gates of a town that rulers were accustomed to sit in order to dispense justice. In Jerusalem, in fact, the Sanhedrim was seated at the Gate of Nicanor, and the assembly of doctors at the Gate of Suza. From this ancient custom comes the name Sublime Porte given to the Sultan's court, and here, therefore, the Gates of Sebeol, or hell, mean either the power of death (compare Isa. xxxviii, 10; 1 Cor. xv, 55), or the empire of Satan or of evil. In either case, immortality and supreme power are plainly assured for the new Church.
11 It may be that the grand sight of the temple of Augustus, resting with its mass of white marble columns upon the rock of Paneas, naturally suggested to Jesus the beautiful picture which He drew in order to define the part Peter was to play in the future history of the Church. The comparison once established between the immense rock and the surname of Simon, that between the dying paganism and the nascent Church had to follow. St. Matthew alone commits to the pages of his Gospel the important promise made by Jesus to SimonPeter. On this point, the others contain an omission which would be inexplicable if they had drawn from one common written source.
12 St. Mark viii, 32.
13 The pitiless dei is emphasized in the three Gospels.
14 St. Matt. xvii, 22, and St. Mark viii, 32, indicate that Peter had hardly begun to speak (hrxato).
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