Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Educating Peter

Sunday's Gospel follows directly on from last week's account of the establishment of the Petrine commission and Peter's great statement of Faith in Jesus as "The Christ, the Son of the Living God". [1] Yet in the space of a week (or a paragraph in the text), Peter had gone from being called "blessed" to being addressed as "Satan" and told to "get behind" Jesus [2]. In my experience, the spiritual life can often be like this - one moment you feel rewarded in the security of your Faith, the next you are confronted abruptly by your sinfulness.

The context for Christ's rather stark words to a man upon whom he has chosen to build up his Church is His own revelation regarding the nature of His commission:

From then onwards Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.

Peter's response is not something gravely offensive but born rather of his great love for Christ:

Then, taking him aside, Peter started to rebuke him. 'Heaven preserve you, Lord,' he said, 'this must not happen to you.'

Jesus' reply however leaves Peter with no room for ambiguity in his understanding of both the essence of His mission and the error of Peter's judgement:

But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do.'

Finally, he indicates that those who wish to follow him will be required to make sacrifices:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me'.

In many ways this discourse is a microcosm of the Christian life. Professing Jesus as the Christ is perhaps the easiest aspect of Faith - surrendering to His Will and accepting "His Way" with the crosses that may follow is far more difficult. In Peter's case, I can perceive three possible and related sources to his refusal to countenance Jesus' predicted suffering: compassion, expectation and fear.

Compassion is a noble sentiment but as Jesus' rebuke makes clear, it can be an obstacle if cripples our capacity for making difficult choices. Many Catholics who dissent from Church teaching often have their reasoning rooted in compassion and it is all too easy for us to criticise them when we ourselves lack the same inner turmoil. As compassion has its root in something fundamentally good, we should have patience with those who consequently struggle with particular aspects of Church teaching, always hopeful that a deepening of Faith will allow them to accept the crosses that bearing witness to that teaching will entail.

Peter's love for Jesus was surely genuine but maybe at this stage of their relationship he had certain expectations which were devastated by Christ's revelations. To a man who believed the Messiah would reign in glory, talk of grievous suffering would have come as a terrible shock. It would have been perfectly natural for Peter to have expected some reward for his faith and instead he has been told that he would not only have to watch his friend suffer and die but that he too would have to take up a cross. We may often feel that our Faith entitles us to better "rub of the green" but any cursory look through scripture will reveal that this simply is not so. In fact, the deeper our Faith, the more will be asked of us.

Peter's compassion is a truly human response but it is a response given according to his fallen nature. Nobody wishes to see a friend suffer and most of us will go to any lengths to avoid it but suffering and how we deal with it is an integral part of what it is to be human because none of us can escape it. As a society, we are terrified of suffering and it is this fear which can be an obstacle to right judgement and an excuse for moral shortcuts. We don't like to be reminded of it and either subconsciously or by design hide it away, particularly when it begins to impinge on our moral sensitivities. Old people are forgotten in nursing homes, the mentally ill are segregated in hospitals, the homeless and destitute are abandoned on the streets. Eventually, we might begin to wonder what we might or should do when quality of life outweighs this suffering and the terminus of such thought is that it is better to end that life. Abortion and euthanasia are frequently justified on the grounds of compassion where individuals are judged to be incapable of attaining a quality of life that outweighs their suffering or the suffering they might cause to others.

Without a salvific understanding of suffering, our fear of it is understandable. It is only Christ's sacrifice on the cross that gives it any meaning and we are called to believe that God allows suffering for a greater good. This purpose may be inscrutable to us we can either trust in God as a loving Father and to make what we can of suffering or give ourselves over to despair. As Saint Pope John Paul II wrote in Salvifici Doloris, "In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed,. … Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ." [4]

[1] Mt 16: 16 - 20
[2] Mt 16: 21 - 24
[3] http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/08/a-catholic-reflection-on-the-meaning-of-suffering
[4] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris_en.html

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