Who Do You Say That I Am?

SCRIPTURES & ART: The 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B)

William Hole (1846-1917), ‘Who Do Men Say That I Am?’
William Hole (1846-1917), ‘Who Do Men Say That I Am?’ (photo: Library of Congress/Public Domain)

One of the arguments for the current three-year cycle of readings for Sunday Mass is that Catholics are systematically and regularly introduced to a broad range of Gospel readings. This year (Year B) focuses on the Gospel of Mark. And today’s Gospel is smack dab in the middle of Mark’s Gospel. It is the turning point of Mark’s Gospel — the event to which everything preceding it leads, and from which all subsequent events follow.

Even though the structure of our three-year Sunday readings is supposed to expose Catholics to the individual Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), the nature of Sunday readings doesn’t always show how everything in a Gospel fits together. Part of the reason is that the Sunday Gospels also have to fit the liturgical year, so while we start reading the Gospel in more or less continual fashion in Ordinary Time, major swaths of time — Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter — interrupt that continuity, the Gospel needing to accommodate the feast. 

If we look at what we have read in the previous eight chapters of Mark — the material we have largely read during Ordinary Time back in January/February and now since Corpus Christi — we have seen many miracles. Jesus heals the sick. He expels demons. He restores sight and hearing. He rules nature.

As we’ve repeatedly said, these miracles are not just intended to be events in themselves. They speak about Jesus’ Identity and Mission. They tell us who he is and why he’s here. He’s here first and foremost to defeat Satan. He is here to ensure that God and good and not evil have the final word in cosmic history. Jesus comes to save.

He does that primarily spiritually (hence, the numerous exorcisms) but, since humans are composites of matter and spirit, Jesus’ healing spills over the whole person, soul and body. That is why, where there is faith in him, Jesus can heal, and even his healings have symbolic meanings — he opens eyes to see the truth (since he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”) and ears to hear his word (since “in the beginning was the Word”). All of this in Mark’s Gospel has led to the question: “who do you say I am?”

That question reaches its climax in today’s Gospel. 

Jesus poses two questions that, superficially, seem parallel. “Who do people say I am?” “Who do you say I am?”

External appearances aside, the questions are very different. The first is a reporter’s question. “What’s the word on the street?” It’s factual. Anybody can answer it. “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” 

The second question is not factual but existential. “Who do you say I am?” Nobody but me can answer that question for me.

It’s existential not just because it’s personal, but because the answer involves more than a fact. It involves a commitment. To say that “Jesus is the Christ” is the work of the Holy Spirit (Mark 8:29, cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3) and now demands my decision in response to that grace. For a concrete someone to answer Jesus’ question is to take a personal stand vis-à-vis the one asking the question, i.e., Jesus.

In Mark’s Gospel, that’s the essence of the issue. As a result of Peter’s confession here at Caesarea Philippi, the Gospel’s focus now turns to the accomplishment of Jesus’ Mission through his Passion, death and Resurrection. That is why, immediately upon Peter’s acknowledgement of Jesus’ divinity, Jesus immediately starts talking about how “the Son of Man must suffer greatly, and be rejected … and be killed, and rise after three days.” It is also why Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan,” because like during the temptation in the desert, the devil’s ploy is for Jesus to play Frank Sinatra, to “do it my way,” not the Father’s. When Peter attempts to divert Jesus from the Father’s Will, he earns the same rebuke that ends the temptations in the desert: “Begone, Satan!”

In a very real sense, everything you always wanted to know about Jesus is found — at least for Mark — in today’s Gospel.

Of the three Synoptics, Mark tends to treat events the most briefly. The confession at Caesarea Philippi is central to all the Gospels. Both Matthew (16:13-20) and Luke (9:18-27) contain the same episode, but provide greater detail on the event. This should not surprise us, because the Gospel writers are writers. When you learned to write a paper or essay in school, you learned you have to be selective about your material. Good writers do not cram in every detail just because it’s there: they pick and choose, in light of their needs. Writers select what they put in and what they leave out in light of their purpose in writing. That’s true of Gospel writers, too.

Matthew connects Peter’s confession with the establishment of Petrine primacy, i.e., the leadership responsibility of the Pope. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus connects Peter’s confession with his renaming (“you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church”) and his receiving “the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,” the power of binding and loosing. Every priest, of course, receives the power of binding and loosing sins, but the importance of this event for Matthew is that Peter’s confession of Jesus’ divinity establishes him as the Church’s rock foundation, a function of “confirming your brothers in the faith” (Luke 22:32) unique to the papacy.

Perugino captured the scene as related by Matthew in his great 15th-century work that adorns the Sistine Chapel, a classic work every art history student should know. But because Mark does not focus on Peter’s role as foundation of the Church but as the one who confesses who Jesus is (the central question for Mark), we’ll focus on a different work of art: “Jesus Rebukes Peter” by William Hole.

Hole was born in England in 1846 but became a member of the Royal Scottish Academy. Biblical themes were among the key foci of his works. In his 20s, he spent time in Italy. Later, around 1900, he spent time in Palestine, where he produced 80 watercolors that illustrate The Life of Jesus of Nazareth. (Whether this painting is part of that book I cannot say: with most academic libraries still in COVID-19 lockdown and Amazon selling Hole’s book for about $700, I could not verify).

Like Mark, Hole’s painting omits the symbolism of the “giving of the keys to Peter,” something a likely Protestant like Hole would not care to emphasize. Eight Apostles and an apostolic knee are on view, but the center of the action is Jesus and Peter. All apostolic eyes are focused on the two (although several are ambiguous enough also to suggest they are looking at you and want to draw you into the picture). Jesus’ upbraiding left hand and Peter’s lowered head and hands suggest this isn’t a moment of praise, but Jesus’ right hand on Peter’s arm also suggests continuing investment in this Apostle. Given the regular jockeying for position that seemed to dominate the free moments of the Apostles, one cannot exclude a certain Schadenfreude in some of the listeners, seeing the great Peter (whom, in Matthew, has just been declared a “rock”) taken down a peg. Peter has apparently had one of his enthusiastic outbursts; Jesus clearly needs to correct his flawed ideas. The fruit trees above Jesus’ head perhaps also allude to him as “the living vine” to whom these apostles need to stay connected. 

The grove setting of this event seems historically faithful: Caesarea Philippi lies near Mount Hermon in what is today called the Golan Heights. We know from archaeology there was once a temple to the Roman god Pan near the spring of this city, a watercourse we see behind Jesus. Jesus appears, as seems often in Hole’s paintings, in white, but a distinguishing feature (according to “The Bible Illustration Blog”) is that Hole regularly features Jesus in a keffiyeh, an Arab male headdress. The earthy tones of the painting, in contrast to Jesus’ pure white (reflected in the ground) give a warmth and unity to the painting. We know that Hole was particularly interested in capturing the mood and appearance of the Holy Land in his works. 

Jesus frequently had to deal with Peter’s lapsus linguae — his outbursts, and his failure to speak. Jesus does not spare Peter’s feelings, but he remains committed to this man as long as this man is willing to (re)commit to Christ. What Peter says in Caesarea Philippi is critical: it earns him a rebuke and the Petrine primacy. It’s the turning point of Mark’s Gospel.