Feast of the Chair of St. Peter
Scripture Readings: 1 Pet 5:1-4 Mt 16:13-19
One day a professor was teaching a class of business students about managing time. He used an illustration they will never forget. Taking a one gallon Mason jar he began filling it with rocks. When no more rocks would fit in, he asked, “Is the jar full?” They replied, “Yes.” He said, “Really?” Then he poured gravel into the spaces between the rocks and asked again, “Is it full?”When no one replied he said, “Now you’re not so sure.” Next he poured sand into the remaining spaces right up to the top. Once more he asked, “Is the jar full?”It looked that way, but one of the students replied, “No! There’s still room for water.” The professor said, “You’re right.” He took a pitcher of water and filled the jar to the brim. Then he asked, “What’s the point of this illustration?”One student said, “It means that when your schedule seems to be full, a good manager can still do more.” “No,” he replied, “this illustration means that if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all. What are the ‘big rocks’ in your life: are they God, the Church, your family, your friends, time for doing things you love? Put the BIG ROCKS in first. If you fill your life with little things you won’t have room for the really important things.”
Today’s feast celebrates one of three really big rocks in the lives of those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. These three rocks are his real presence: first in the Eucharist, second in Sacred Scripture, and third in Sacred Tradition—the mystery we celebrate today under the sign of the Chair of St. Peter.
In the Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, we read: “The Church has always venerated the Divine Scriptures just as she venerates the Body of the Lord” (#21). And, “Both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence,” (#9). As we venerate Christ in the Eucharist, so also we venerate him in the Sacred Scriptures; and as we venerate him in the Scriptures, so also we venerate him in Sacred Tradition.
For example, we may express love for someone by a physical embrace, or by writing, or by speaking. The manner is different, but we are present with our love in all three: in a hug, in a love letter, and in spoken words of affection.
What are the visible signs of Christ’s threefold presence? First, the consecrated bread and wine. Second, the Word of God in the seventy-three books of the bible. And third, the defined dogmas of the Church proclaimed ex cathedra from the Chair of St. Peter by the pope and the ecumenical councils. Christ is also present as Sacred Tradition whenever we recite the apostolic creeds handed down to us, and in every celebration of the sacraments, and whenever someone gives witness to the one, true, catholic and apostolic faith by martyrdom like the seven monks of Atlas in Algeria.
In today’s feast of the Chair of St. Peter we are reminded that the ease with which we discern the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine, and in Sacred Scripture, depends on our belief in his real presence in Sacred Tradition. Unbelievers also see bread and wine, and the books of the bible, but they do not discern the real presence of Christ there because they do not discern the real presence of Christ in Sacred Tradition guiding us to all that is true, good and beautiful in our faith.
In every celebration of the Mass the three big rocks of Christ’s presence are represented by the altar for the Eucharist, by the lectern for the Word of God, and by the presider’s chair for Sacred Tradition. It is your love and worship that Jesus seeks by his presence here under these three signs. It is you who are being lifted up by the grace of these signs to union with Jesus, to more abundant life, even to sharing in God’s own divine nature. Because for Jesus, you are among the big rocks in his life.
Feast of the Chair of St. Peter
[Scripture Readings: 1 Pt 5:1-4; Mt 16:13-19 ]
The city of Rome, which I visited last year, is like one great big art museum, and the style of art that clearly predominates as you walk around the city is Baroque. There are in Rome hundreds of Baroque interiors and monuments, and of all these perhaps the most impressive is the architectural marvel located directly behind the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica where Bernini built an enormous sunburst of stone and gilded gold about five stories high. It is actually, a giant reliquary, inside which, pious tradition says, is the very chair of St. Peter.
Standing in front of this spectacle, one might ask: “Why this unparalleled splendor and centuries-old veneration — for a chair? Is Bernini’s monument a shrine to the “churchianity” we have heard criticized in recent days? Have Roman Catholics made an idol of the papacy?
The book we’re currently reading1 in the refectory, points out that modern American Christians, influenced by Liberal Protestantism, have typically spurned devotions of just this sort. Protestants in general are not apt to direct religious sentiments toward a chair, and insist upon investing their devotion in the person of Jesus alone, who never occupied a chair for very long, and who even today is on the move; making his way around the world; changing continuously with the times. Our refectory book makes clear just how mobile Jesus is, as it chronicles the history of America’s response to His question: “Who do people say that I am?” America’s answer: a judge, a mother, a friend, a macho man, a gentle shepherd, a CEO, a hippie, a Mormon, an Avatar . . . The book is written in so lighthearted a manner, we’re apt to forget, (and one suspects the author may have forgotten), that a moment is coming—and it will come—when Jesus, addressing himself directly to the author will ask: “And you, Stephen Prothero, who do you say I am?” We are apt to forget that a moment is coming—and it will come—when Jesus addressing himself to each one of us enjoying this book will ask us, one by one: “But tell me now, Abbot Brendan, who do you say I am?” And you, Bro. Ephrem, who do you say I am. And you, Bro. Nathanael?”
Personally, I feel more than a little anxious as I anticipate this moment when the Lord of Glory, having quietly stood by watching me live my life, will address me at last and say: “Now then, Fr. Alberic, who do you say I am?” And yet, even as anticipation of this exam moves me to fear and trembling, I am reassured and very happy when I recall that at least one member of our class passed this exam; stood before the Examiner and gave him an answer that was so right, so inspired; so exactly what the Lord wanted to hear, that with enthusiasm rarely described in the gospels, Jesus’ back suddenly straightened; his eyes widened; his voice rose; and he cried: “God bless you Peter! God bless you! No human being gave you that answer! Amazing Peter! Amazing!”
There is a thrill in recalling that one of our own “slam-dunked” the ultimate exam question put to him by the Ultimate Examiner: he is Peter—our brother. If only, on the day we have to take that final exam, we could sit near Peter. What a reassurance it would be to us to know he whose faith so impressed the Lord was sitting near us at that moment. But where is Peter seated that we may draw near him? Where may we find him should his presence suddenly become indispensable to us?
The good news of today’s feast is that there is a chair that marks Peter’s place, a chair whose location has been revealed and advertised to the whole world, and though everything in this world is constantly changing and moving, Peter’s chair does not move. Our joy today is not in a chair, but in the knowledge that this particular chair that never moves, marks the place where we may take refuge under the protection of the greatest champion of our faith. It is this sign of God’s kind reassurance that draws pilgrims by their thousands to St. Peter’s Basilica, and moves the heart of the Universal Church this morning, to a vibrant new hope and to rejoicing.
Feast of the Chair of St. Peter
[Scripture Readings: 1 Pt 5:1-4; Mt 16:13-19]
Today as we celebrate the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, we might reflect a moment on the person presently occupying that chair: Pope Benedict the XVI. We are witnessing these days a peculiar drama being played out in this new pontificate now ten months old. Immediately following his election, many speculated about what life in the Catholic Church might be like under the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. How many foresaw the realitythe quiet; the stillness? It has been a surprisingly uneventful ten months.
The author of the article we’re reading in the refectory predicts that Benedict will be less concerned than John Paul II in “closing the gap” between the official church of Rome and ordinary Catholic people, Benedict will, quote: “govern more and matter less” . . . and this, the author suggests, may not be a bad thing. If Benedict is likely to neglect the concerns of many of the faithful, this author seems inclined to return the favor and encourages us to do likewise, that is, to worry less about what the Pope believes and get back to working out what WE believe and what God is asking US to do with OUR lives. That sounds to me more like a description of where we’ve been than of where we want to go. I am reminded of the completely amiable divorce between church and culture I witnessed in Italy two years ago. That sort of laid-back indifference toward the official church on the part of the faithful, is not a prospect I find particularly hopeful or inspiring.
There is another way to interpret the quiet and stillness of this new papacy; namely, that our new pope is himself in a process of transformation.
The author is quite right in saying the great challenge for our new pope will be bridging the gap between church doctrine and the real life of Catholic believers, and this will first of all require of the pope that doctrine and life be unitedin his own person. Hans Urs Von Balthasar has pointed out that, in the person of Jesus, doctrine and life were not only united, they were identical. In Jesus, doctrine and life were identical; they were one and the same thing. But, this unity was absolutely unique to Jesus based as it was on the hypostatic union in him of a human and divine nature. By contrast, in a church made up of human beings, the union of doctrine and life is expressed dualistically: right beliefin the apostolic office of St. Peter, holiness of lifein the living example of the saints. If Von Balthasar is right about this; if in the person of Jesus Christ ALONE are doctrine and life identical, it means that every man who serves as pope is going to make visible before the eyes of the world, a certain lack of this unity in his own person. In this respect, every pope must inevitably be measured and found wanting with reference to the Lord, in whom doctrine and life were one and the same thing. But this means that every pope is, in a poignant way, a visible reminder to the faithful that Christ is no longer here; a reminder that the bodily presence of the God man has been taken from us.
I wonder if it is not an essential function of the Chair of St. Peter to point to this reality of Christ’s absence. This might help us interpret a fact you will note if you visit the actual chair of Peter enshrined in a reliquary,(interestingly enough, a reliquary painted black), situated behind the main altar of St. Peter’s basilica: the chairis empty. Moreover, the chair of Peter stored in that reliquary remains empty after the man duly elected pope is said to “occupy” that chair. The actual chair of Peter is always empty, and today, ten months into Benedict’s pontificate, remains empty. Every time pope Benedict celebrates one of those gorgeous papal liturgies at St. Peter’s high altar; seated on his throne flanked by prelates and heaps of flowers and giant golden candlesticks, there remains visible over his shoulder that chair whose perennial emptiness empties every man seated in it; that big black empty chair; visible reminder to us all of that perfect unity of doctrine and life which is an attribute of the God man alone.
Perhaps, on today’s feast, we can find in ourselves a certain compassion and understanding toward Benedict XVI called by the church to occupy that great black empty chair of St. Peter, a chair whose emptiness is even now quietly and irrevocably emptying Benedict XVI; making him a mediator of the love of our risen Lord for the whole world.
Feast of the Chair of St. Peter
[Scripture Readings: 1 Pet 5:1-4 Mt 16:13-19]
One day an instructor in time management was speaking to a class of business students. He used an illustration they will never forget. Taking a one gallon Mason jar he began filling it with rocks the size of your fist. When no more rocks would fit in, he asked, “Is this jar full?” They replied, “Yes.” He said, “Really?” Then he poured gravel into the spaces between the rocks. He asked again, “Is it full?” When no one replied he said, “Now you’re not so sure.” Next he poured sand into the remaining spaces right up to the top. Once more he asked, “Is this jar full?” It certainly looked that way, but one of the students said, “No! It isn’t. There’s room for water.” The instructor said, “You’re right.” He took a pitcher of water and filled the jar to the brim. Then he asked him, “What’s the point of this illustration?” The student said, “It means that when your schedule seems to be full, a good manager can still do more.” “No,” he replied, “this illustration shows that if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all. What are the ‘big rocks’ in your life: God, the Church, your family, your friends, time for doing things you love? Put the BIG ROCKS in first. If you fill your life with little things you’ll never have room for the really important things in life.”
Today’s feast celebrates one of three really big rocks in the lives of those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. These three rocks are his presence in the Eucharist, and in the Word of God, and in sacred Tradition — which is one of the mysteries we honor today under the symbol of the Chair of St. Peter. Christ is truly present in all three, inviting our love and adoration. Yes, we are actually called to adore Christ in sacred Tradition just as we adore him in the Eucharist.
In the Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, we read: “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord ” (#21). And, “Both sacred Scripture and sacred tradition are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence,” (#9). As we venerate Christ in the Eucharist, so also we venerate him in the Scriptures; and as we venerate him in the Scriptures, we also venerate him in sacred Tradition.
For example, in our interpersonal relationships, we may expresses our love for someone by a physical embrace, or by a written letter, or by entrusting that expression of love to a special messenger. The manner is different, but it is the same person whose expression of love is present in all three: in the flesh, in the written word, and in the spoken message.
What are the visible signs of Christ’s threefold presence? First, the consecrated bread and wine which are the Body and Blood of Christ whom I adore. Second, the seventy-three books of the bible which are clear signs of Christ’s presence in the Word of God. But where do I encounter and venerate Christ in the third sign, his presence in sacred Tradition? Certainly, in the defined dogmas of the Church proclaimed ex cathedra from the Chair of St. Peter and by the ecumenical councils. And also in the apostolic creeds handed down to us, and in spoken words of the sacraments. Christ is present and to be adored in all of these. But He is also present as sacred Tradition whenever someone professes the one, true, catholic and apostolic faith. We can venerate the true presence of Jesus whenever someone gives witness to their Christian faith.
There are two extraordinary ways in which Christ’s presence in sacred Tradition is manifested by the believing Christian for our veneration. First, by one who dies giving witness to Christ by martyrdom. Second, by one who gives witness to Christ by living the evangelical counsels of consecrated poverty, chastity and obedience. Thank God there are such clear signs of Christ’s loving presence among us!
These are the three rocks that we want to put first in the glass jars of our fragile lives on earth. But do we? Does our communion with the sacred Scriptures have the same veneration and commitment of time that we give to the Eucharist every day? And do we venerate sacred Tradition present in the Magisterium of the Chair of St. Peter and in the Catholic faith of the believing Christian with the same veneration we give to the Body and Blood of Jesus and to the Word of God?
In today’s feast of the Chair of St. Peter we are reminded that the ease with which we discern the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine, and in the bible, depends on our belief in his real presence in sacred Tradition guiding us in what is most true, good and beautiful. Unbelievers also see bread and wine, and the books of the bible, but they do not discern the true presence of Christ there because they do not discern his guiding presence in sacred Tradition. Even among believers—Jews, Protestants, and Catholics—there is disagreement on which books of the bible are the inspired Word of God. The Council Fathers write that it is only “through the same tradition that the Church’s full canon of sacred books is known and more profoundly understood. For without sacred tradition the scriptures lend themselves to a variety of contradictory interpretations” (8). Without the rock of sacred Tradition founded on Saint Peter we would not enjoy Christian sanity.
At St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Chair of St. Peter is symbolically represented in a Baroque, gold plated symbol by Bernini. But we don’t have to go to Rome for this sign. In every celebration of the liturgy Christ’s threefold presence is represented by the altar, the lectern, and the presider ‘s chair. And it is you, the believing Christian, who are the reason for these signs. It is your love and worship that Jesus seeks to win by his presence under these three forms. It is you who are being lifted up by the grace of these signs to union with Jesus, to more abundant life, even to sharing in God’s own divine nature.