Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year A

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Andrés G. Niño, O.S.A.
St Mary’s Rectory
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Readings
Is 22:19-23
Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8
Rom 11:33-36
Mt 16:13-20

Jesus was a good teacher in the rabbinic tradition, asking questions in the midst of a conversation or at the end of an encounter. Instructing his disciples he always put into it a particular accent of intimacy as in the dialog described on this page of the gospel. It was relevant to ask what other people thought about him because he was the one sent to fulfill all the prophecies and promises of a sacred covenant. But despite his words of wisdom and mighty deeds, apparently his identity was never clear in the thoughts of many. In a larger social context the Jews of the time had their dreams set on a leader capable of restoring their lost kingdom. Jesus did not met their expectations. And then, spread among the ordinary folks, their guessing ranged from a devoted “one of the prophets” to a dismissive “the son of the carpenter” or someone in between, rather troublesome to the powerful for their ways of life and keeping traditions.

The question, nonetheless, was raised squarely in very personal terms as addressed to his own disciples:

Who do you say that I am?

It must have taken them by surprise because it brought out the directness and suspense that happens in a moment of truth between friends. Peter was able to give a solemn theological response, surely inspired from above. But, remarkably, the rest of the group did not know how to articulate something worthy. Perhaps they hesitated wondering what kind of answer was expected or did not know how to put together impressions and sentiments that came to their minds. Jesus would not ask difficult questions from the disciples that would place them in an embarrassing position. They would be at a disadvantage with the learned who were capable of giving a thoughtful response.

But the question was marked down forever.

Augustine recounts a large period of his life he called “years of ignorance” when despite his success as a professional teacher, and a reader of the greatest books, he could not figure out anything meaningful about Him beyond his name, learned at home as a child. He would acknowledge Jesus was “a great man of extraordinary wisdom…but not God.” And could not understand either what a humble figure like Jesus would be capable of teaching him.1 Yet, it was precisely in that zone of spiritual blindness where the hidden power of the question opens all the possibilities. For the question is not an academic one. With those few words Jesus sends disciples and unbelievers alike, into the depth of our being, “where the Truth speaks to us.” However, how can we know who He is, if we are not engaged in an intimate level of relation in the manner that the same Augustine initiated later on his dialog with “the interior Teacher?” There, while working attentively through his words, he recognized Christ as viam vitae, the way of his life.2

1 Confessions VII, 18, 24.
2 Confessions VI, 2, 2.

The question has overcome silences and conflicting ideologies to remain open for all generations. Perhaps Rembrandt thought constantly about it while painting Head of Christ to see him in depth and give an answer. In our time, the “tumult of the unquiet” has intensified exponentially and we can hardly pay attention, contemplate and come to know who He is. We have gone so far through our ways that we have forgotten ourselves. The thoughts of many about Him are diluted, or lost amid a flood of irrelevant messages. The modern mind, preoccupied with many things in the marketplace of earthy ambitions, avoids the question. An entire generation of young people decline to say anything that might indicate a commitment to a living faith. And there are also many who, despite hearing the message, even followed Christ for some time, now find themselves without motivation to recognize Him. Is this the sign that once prompted Jesus to wonder, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”3

The Gospel always spares humans from hurriedness and anxiety, opening a space and time to “search, ask, and knock.”4 In the process, we go from the external provided by things and other people to the internal where each one of us is “alone before you” as Augustine put it. He realized also years later that a genuine answer to his question is not simply verbal or written, it is also life. He worked through all these questions with incredible passion and a clear mind about what Christ meant to him along the vicissitudes of a spiritual pilgrimage. He came from the ignorance of the arrogant to the wisdom of the humble and from being dispersed to be gathered in one with Christ. In this manner he wisely suggests a review of our journey of faith. There we shall discover what our experience of relating to Him has been and will see what Jesus really is now for each one of us. As promised in the Gospel: those who seek will find him and finding him will praise him.5

3 Luke 18:8.
4 Matt 7:7.

In that regard, Augustine, shares with us his inmost understanding of Christ as he meditates upon the words of Psalm 71:

May my mouth be filled with praise all day long
In prosperity, because then you are comforting me;
In adversity, because then you are correcting me;
Before I existed, because you made me;
After I came to be, because you saved me;
After I had sinned, because you forgave me;
After I had turned back to you, because you helped me;
When I had persevered to the end,
Because you shall be my reward.6

I am sure that many who have walked along with Augustine in his pilgrimage,7 all those readers who “make the truth” as they go and join him praying in this manner, have found a way to respond who is Christ for them. They have realized also that the answer which is rooted in life experience must be kept loud and clear through a sustained effort. The road is steep and narrow and Augustine admitted to be often dragged down from the best moments of grace to the labor of earthly engagements. He implored to the One who knows him: “Let me ever increase in remembering you, knowing you and loving you, until you restore me according to your will.”8 A fundamental exercise he handed down to all true seekers.

In this event Peter was rewarded for his confession with the promise of a new covenant. As for the rest of us we shall rejoice in the fact that, in our time, we were not silent, that we actually said something with our lives and the “shouts of our hearts.” We hope that, in the end, the Lord himself will be our reward.

5 Confessions I, 1, 1.
6 Explanations of the Psalms 71 (70).v7-9.10.
7 Confessions X, 4, 6.
8 The Trinity 28, 51.