24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B:
Gospel: Mark 8:27-35 (click on ‘Mass Readings’, for the texts.)
You couldn’t miss seeing Caesarea Philippi. Jesus and his disciples had walked the 40k or more towards it, directly northeast of the Sea of Galilee. Even from a great distance, it looked mightily impressive. You couldn’t miss seeing this temple city.
Caesarea Philippi is in the foothills of Mount Hermon which is in Syria. Mount Hermon is the largest mountain in the whole area towering 2,814 meters (close to 10,000 feet) above sea level.
At Caesarea Philippi there is a massive wall of rock that is well over 100 feet straight up and about 500 feet wide. The city of Caesarea Philippi was built on top of this enormous rock. It was enlarged and rededicated by King Philip to honor the Caesar in Rome. Caesar considered himself a god and King Philip was eager to please him. Hence the name ‘Caesarea Philippi’. It was for the worship of gods.
As well as worshiping the Emperor Caesar, the Greeks and Romans had many other gods. One that was especially honored here in Caesarea Philippi was the Pagan god of Pan,- half goat, half man, god of shepherds and of fertility, and god of fright! (The word ‘panic’ comes from his name.) He was often depicted playing the flute.
So, what was JESUS doing travelling up into the region of the great Roman-built city of CAESAREA PHILIPPI? CAESAR considered himself a God, and wanted people to worship him. Pan was worshipped at the waterfalls and in the caves, in this area. Why would Jesus face down the two ‘gods’, Caesar and Pan? In plain view of this enormous rock on which the pagan temple was built, Jesus turned to his own disciples and asked them that now famous question ‘Who do people say I am?’ And when Mark put this down in written form around 65AD, the disciples in Rome were faced with the god Caesar, the Emperor, and the Roman PANTHEON of all their false gods. And the question was put to disciples, then and now: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter, in today’s Gospel Reading, was the one disciple who spoke up bravely and said ‘You are the CHRIST’ (or The Messiah, the Anointed One sent by God). The only problem, as he found out very shortly after, was that his idea of ‘Messiah’ was very different from Jesus’ idea. Peter thought of chariots and war-hero, Jesus thought of the cross! And Jesus rebuked him with those sharp words ‘Get behind me, Satan!’
Move on 35 or 40 years, and you’re now in Rome. Imagine hearing that story of Mark’s Gospel read for you in your hiding place in Rome, where you gathered for the Breaking of Bread, constantly in fear of the banging on the door as they came for you. This was decision time. Who is Jesus, for you? Is he to be preferred to the Emperor? Whom will you worship? Will you choose Pan,the god of shepherds and fertility, -or will you chose the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus the Christ, who will give life to the full?
Will I cave in, when the soldiers come for me and my fellow disciples, and worship the Emperor to save my life, my skin? Or will I let go my very life, my skin, and worship Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God? Will I put my head on the block for Jesus, if it comes to it?
Tough choice. Today.
Seamus Devitt C.Ss.R.