Today’s reading is Mark 8:27-30:
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
When I was in my first parish assignment, I had the opportunity to be the evening speaker to over 100 of our sophomore parishioners preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation the next year. The topic was on the Holy Spirit, but I felt inspired to first speak to the students about Jesus Christ. As I began I told them that I was going to make a true or false statement, and afterwards I was going to ask who in the room thought it was false and who thought it was true. Here was the statement: Jesus is God. I asked, “Who thinks that’s false?” To my amazement, half the hands in the room went up. I asked why they thought it was false. One young man said that Jesus is the son of God, not actually God. A young woman said that God is one person and Jesus is another person, so they can’t be the same. I then asked, “Now who thinks it’s true?” To my delight, half of the other hands in the room went up and I asked why. One young woman said that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and Jesus is the Son, so He must be God. A young man remarked that his mother told him that Jesus is God so it must be true! How could I speak to these young people, who were one year away from being confirmed, about the Holy Spirit if they didn’t know that a core tenet of Christianity is the truth that Jesus is true God and true man? So, for the rest of the night I spoke to those young people about how we believe by faith that Jesus is indeed God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity.
Ever since the birth of Christ people have grappled with questions about the identity of Jesus. Is He God, is He a man, or could He be both? Even before the birth of Christ people marveled at who the long awaited Messiah would be. In the selection we have today from Mark’s Gospel Jesus asks two questions to the man He will one day call to be the rock on which He will build His Church: Who do people say that I am and who do you say that I am? While we often see Peter getting it wrong in various ways throughout the Gospels, at that moment Peter gets it right as he correctly answers that Jesus is the Messiah. How is Peter able to make this beautiful profession of faith about the divine identity of Jesus? Catholic interpretation has always maintained that this special knowledge about the identity of God is a particular charism of Peter and his successors in the Church down through the ages, namely through the ministry of Popes in the life of the Church. Jesus no doubt makes Peter the leader amongst the Apostles because of his profession of faith in Jesus’ true identity, and this charism of knowledge and love will be used by God in service to His holy people from Pentecost to our own time today. Who do you say that Jesus is? For Peter and for Christian disciples down through the ages (including I pray those young people from my first assignment) Jesus is indeed the Messiah, God incarnate, the One who has come to save us from our sins.
Fr. Mark Murphy is the Undergraduate Chaplain of the Harvard Catholic Center.