February 21, 2014

What Caesarea Philippi means to America

By Joe Tremblay *
“It lies in the very nature of man that something must be supreme, something must take the place of the divine when this has been excluded; and this substitute for God, according to a predominant philosophy, is the State.” When Cardinal James Gibbons wrote these words in 1919, this predominant philosophy had already a strong foothold in Europe and in Russia. And historically, what disposed people to surrender their liberties to ambitious political rulers was religious uncertainty. The first century, when our Lord walked the earth, was no exception.

In order to show just how religiously uncertain the world was, our Lord brought his Apostles to Caesarea Philippi. This city was named after a Caesar Augustus and King Herod. Its population was predominantly non-Jewish, that is, Gentile and pagan. One of its main attractions was a cave embedded in a huge rock formation; or as the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, said, “a great cavity in the earth.” This was a place where many gods were worshiped. A pool of water existed in this cave, the depths of which were unknown. For the pagans, this measureless depth symbolized the bottomless pit of Hades. Their rituals would consist of throwing their sacrificed animals into this pool in hopes that their gods would be appeased. Later, after the Roman Empire annexed this land, Roman temples were to be built in front of this cave to honor their gods; which included a cult dedicated to Caesar Augustus. In the Roman Empire during the first century, emperors were given divine status.

In Caesarea Philippi, where religious uncertainty was ostentatious, Jesus Christ posed a question to his Apostles; this, to demonstrate how religious certitude can be had. He asked: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The Gospel of Matthew continues: “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” (Matthew 16:13-19)

Our Lord, by renaming Simon, son of Jonah, “Rock,” was drawing upon a long standing Old Testament tradition. In the eighth century B.C., the Jews, descendants of Abraham, had fallen away from the worship of Yahweh, the one true God, and turned to other gods. From amidst this religious confusion, the prophet Isaiah raised his voice and told them to return to the rock from which they were hewn; the rock being father Abraham. It was on this rock where God's lighthouse shined the light of truth in the Old Testament era. This is where the standard of truth was to be found.

Hence, in order to express the permanence and reliability of God's instrument of communicating truth, Jesus used the biblical image of a rock to name Peter. In fact, the name “Peter” itself means Rock in Aramaic. In the Old Testament, the term “rock” was originally applied to God. But as we mentioned, it also was used by the prophet Isaiah in reference to Abraham: “Listen to me, you who pursue justice, who seek the LORD; Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the pit from which you were quarried; Look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth...” (51:1-2) Hence, in the Old Testament, the name, “Rock” was not exclusively applied to God; it was also bequeathed to Abraham as well. It had a two-fold connotation of fatherhood and security from evil and error.

Like the patriarch, St. Peter was to inherit this name, “Rock,” near the huge rock in Caesarea Philippi. Again, within this rock was a hollowed cave where the multitudes from many nations worshipped false gods. But upon a new Rock, a Rock that would be made into a mountain, our Lord would build his Church. This Rock or Stone would strike down the Roman Empire with a spiritual sword as the prophet Daniel prophesied: “But the stone that struck the statue [the iron statue represented the last of the great pagan empires...the Roman Empire] became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” (2:35) About this mountain Isaiah said, “The LORD'S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it...” (Isaiah 2:2-3)

In the centuries to come, nations would stream toward this mountain to receive the knowledge of God. Indeed, the ministry of St. Peter continues to this day through Pope Francis. From him comes the religious and moral certainty amid a confused world. It is the same Rock that Abraham represented; it is the same Rock upon which Christ built his Church; and this Rock is none other than God himself. As our Lord promised, the gates of hell would not prevail against it. If hell cannot prevail against it, neither can the culture of death and all that it represents.

Western Civilization, if it is to retain the blessings of God, must return to the Rock from which it was hewn. From the ministry of St. Peter, better known as the Chair of St. Peter, the truth about God, life, love, sex, marriage, contraception, abortion and euthanasia can be known with certainty. From the Church, as St. Irenaeus once said, comes “the breath of immortality and the enkindling of life anew.”

But the further we drift from this rock…from this mountain…from this chair, the further we drift from all that sanctified and civilized the West. As Cardinal Gibbons said, the alternative to the supremacy of God is the supremacy of the State. The life of grace and the moral law that comes from Jesus Christ was the nemesis of religious uncertainty. Inseparable from religious uncertainty is the prevalence of human cruelty and incivility.

There are many opinions about Christ today and what he actually taught. Nevertheless, the truth of faith and morals, so necessary for our stability and happiness, is to be found coming from the Rock upon which Christ built his Church.

Joe Tremblay writes for Sky View, a current event and topic-driven Catholic blog. He was a contributor to The Edmund Burke Institute, and a frequent guest on Relevant Radio’s, The Drew Mariani Show. Joe is also married with five children. The views and opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily reflective of any organizations he works for.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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