Invariably, our steadfastness in being true to our declaration that Jesus is the Christ becomes tested and tried not so much in times of plenty and joy, but rather, in times of trial and tribulations. This is a truism that cannot be easily denied. It is always easy to be true to our Christian values and demands when the going is smooth, the bank account is healthy, the larder is full, and our kids are on the straight path in life. After all, these are easy signs that God is indeed blessing us, and our natural response would be to continue walking on our path in Christ’s footsteps.
However, there will come a time when this path seems to veer into the side roads, where undergrowth becomes daunting to clear, and where our faith becomes tested and tried. I believe that these are the times when we have to make that deliberate choice to stay close to our Christian convictions and not ‘sell away’ our Christian identity too easily.
In yesterday’s gospel text, this was graphically put across to us by the seemingly innocent mention of the geographical area of Caesarea Philippi as the place where that conversation between Jesus and Peter took place. Scripture is rich with depth and meaning, and there are no wasted words in the Bible. Although it seems to be something merely mentioned in passing, there is really a deep theological and spiritual significance regarding Caesarea Philippi.Notice that they were not in Jerusalem, the great and beloved city when this conversation took place. Jerusalem was considered to be God’s chosen city. It was the place of high religious office, the place of the temple, and the city of light. But not Caesarea Philippi. This is a place up north called the Golan Heights. And it was also a place which was where the pagan god of Pan was especially honoured. Strange, you’d think, that Jesus would choose a place like this to ask Peter if his allegiance to Christ was going to be steadfast.
I think we all have our Caesarea Philippi moments in life. These are the times when we are somewhat far from where it is easy to be close to God’s temple, where the structures of faith and our familiar pillars of society are constantly reminding us to walk the walk of faith. I guess, in the Jerusalems of our lives, it is easy to declare Jesus as the Christ of our lives. At least, it would be far easier in comparison to when we are at our Caesarea Philippi’s of our lives where God seems to be somewhat distant, or at best, on vacation for whatever reason.
This is when compromise can easily be what we choose, and take the path ‘most’ travelled.I was leafing through the iPad version of the Straits Times from my home Singapore just this morning, and was dismayed to read that there are more and more couples who have headed abroad to places like Thailand, Belgium, Israel, and the United States to choose the gender of their baby through a process called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In short, this is really playing God in an extreme way, where not only is the embryo dabbled with humanly manipulated, it is also ‘engineered’ to ensure the chosen and preferred gender of the baby will be ‘made’. As if the IVF choice was not intrinsically evil in itself, this adds an even deeper layer of evil which is easily masked by the seeming ‘good’ that can come out of it, because after all, a ‘boy’ child would be for the good of the family line. Obviously, the fact that life is a gift from the true and unique giver of life is overlooked and ignored, making the couple’s choice and intentions far more important God’s.My compassionate side reminds me to try to see things from the couples’ viewpoint. Of course, being Chinese, a son would be wonderful, and I can empathise with couples who are barren and who would love to have children of their own. But barrenness can really be a hallmark of faithfulness if only couples could carry this as a mark of sacrificial or redemptive suffering for so many other reasons, the reparation of souls being a very good one. Sure, it could well be that none of these couples are Catholics and who have been well grounded in good Catholic moral education and formation, and that is why they choose this option of life selection. But this is a very clear example of being in a Caesarea Philippi region of life, where other ‘gods’ are worshipped and one is far from the heart of Jerusalem, the ‘true pole’ of the earth.
I can easily think of other forms of Caesarea Philipis – the temptation to stray from fidelity to one’s spouse; the lure of lucre through illicit means that are so easy and attractive; the walking out from responsibilities of family, society and even nation; or the giving up of life altogether.
What made Peter so remarkable in his response to Jesus was that he declared so pointedly that Jesus was the Christ – meaning the ‘saviour, the anointed one’ in that situation, and in the very next moment, which we will see next weekend, Peter gets it wrong and gets called Satan. Well, that’s us too.
But this is where we need to model ourselves after Peter, because in the end, it was the mercy of Christ that he clung on to that really made him the ‘rock’ that had firm foundations.