This Sunday I celebrated Mass at the Ascension Parish in Hudson where we dedicated a new altar, then I went to Holy Rosary Parish in Lander for the opening Mass of the school year with Wyoming Catholic College. We had a wonderful celebration for each community, and I enjoyed meeting so many new people. The homily for Mass, based on Matthew 16, follows below.
St. Peter is an interesting choice for the Rock of the Church. So often his mouth gets him into trouble because he speaks before he thinks. At times, Peter is strong, impetuous and proud. Other times, he is cowardly, humble and repentant. He is so normal. If the Lord Jesus could transform him and make him a great witness, he can make any of us into faithful disciples.
Peter professes such confident faith in Jesus as he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Mt. 16:16). Another time he asserted, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life. We are convinced and we believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn. 6:68). Yet, rock-solid faith crumbled with a triple denial. That is whom Jesus chose to be the rock of the Church.
What made Peter the rock? What is it that formed him into the rock of faith, the rock of the Church? It is important to reflect on that because it will guide our journey of faith. It will help us to be rock-solid in the faith, despite our sins and quirky personalities.
First, he is the ROCK because that was his call. Jesus told him, “Simon, son of Jonah . . . You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt. 16:18). Jesus made SIMON into PETER, the rock. In a biblical name change, God bestows a mission through a new name. But his identity and mission as rock would need to mature. It is Peter’s process of maturity which will help us live our faith. We need to undergo the same process.
Imagine for a moment that Peter was a ‘soft’ rock, but eventually he would become a ‘hard’ rock. For example, the granite of the Wind River Range is igneous rock. Igneous rock is literally ‘fiery rock,’ taken from ignis, the Latin word for fire. Igneous rock is formed from the molten rock in the fire of a volcano. Peter’s faith became like granite because of the fire of Jesus’ passion.
This fiery transformation is most pointed in John’s Gospel, where Peter denied Jesus at a charcoal fire (John 18:18), then at another charcoal fire Jesus asked Peter if he loved him (John 21:15-17). Those are the only two charcoal fires mentioned in the Gospels. So the fires are intentionally linked. At the first charcoal fire, Peter melted with fear. At the second charcoal fire, he became molten lava infused with Christ’s mercy.
As Jesus asked him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was like clay being fired in the volcano of God’s fierce love. That merciful encounter with the Risen Lord hardened his faith like granite. He became a rock with a deep red vein of mercy running through it. Now, Peter’s strength was not based on his own stubborn will or quick wit. Rather it was grounded in Christ’s unfailing mercy. With steadfast love, Jesus confirmed him as the lead disciple. It must have blown Peter’s mind. It definitely transformed his heart.
In the end, Peter was a rock because Christ was his rock. That is what we find the First Letter of Peter 2:4-5. There Peter describes Jesus as the rock foundation of the Church, not himself. He says, “Come to Him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:4-5).
Peter himself speaks of Jesus as the LIVING STONE of the church. In the Catholic Tradition, Christ the living stone is symbolized by the altar. The Church directs us to use natural stone for the altar top, as an image of the place of Christ’s sacrifice, and as an image of Christ himself. Peter had to stay close to the sacrifice of Christ’s mercy in order to be a rock.
Perhaps you know that the bones of Peter are directly beneath the main altar at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. That is the perfect place for Peter. He is the Rock of the Church because he is below the Rock of the Altar of Christ. The early Christians placed the bones of martyrs under the altar, not because the martyrs’ bones make the altar holy, but to remind them that the mystery of the altar makes martyrs. This tradition is attested to in the Book of Revelation. “I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God” (Rev. 6:9). Similarly, St Ambrose wrote, “He who suffered for all is on the altar; they who have been redeemed by his sufferings are beneath the altar.”
In the end, Peter is a rock because Christ is his rock. He belongs under the altar. So do we. The mystery of Christ that we celebrate on the altar molded Peter into a Rock, and it will mold us. It will make our faith rock-solid.
The ritual for dedicating an altar describes the Christian altar with two images. It is:
- A unique altar on which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated in mystery
- A table at which the Church’s children gather to give thanks to God and receive the Body and Blood of Christ.”
The altar is supposed to be fixed or immovable, attached to the floor. If possible, the top is to be made of “natural stone.” Thus, the altar is meant to be solid as rock, a place of sacrifice in biblical imagery. The Altar of Sacrifice fixes our hearts on the cross. At every Eucharist, we enter into the mystery of the cross.
Yet, the ritual states that it is also supposed to be “freestanding so that the priest can walk around it facing the people.” Perhaps this is because it is called the Table of the Paschal Banquet, which recalls not only the Last Supper, but also the meals of the Risen Christ when the disciples felt their hearts “burning” with the fire of Christ’s love and where they “recognized him in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:32-34).
Thus, the paschal banquet goes beyond the Sacrifice of the Cross. The Risen Christ presides at our paschal banquet, which points beyond to the marriage feast of the Lamb with all the saints in heaven (Rev. 19:9). Through the Eucharistic mystery, we enter into the mystery of Jesus’ sacrificial death; we are filled with the LIFE of his Risen Christ and we taste the glory of heaven. The Church’s reform of the liturgy at Vatican II recaptured both images, of the ALTAR of Sacrifice and of the TABLE of the Paschal Banquet. At times, some have overemphasized the table image and have lost the sense of sacrifice. Other times, the table image has been lost.
As you approach the altar to receive Holy Communion, come like Peter did to that charcoal fire at the Sea of Tiberius. With humble faith, come aware of your frailty and sin, but more keenly aware of Lord’s steadfast mercy. Ask Christ to make your heart burn with the fire of his love – burning away all sin, and molding you into a living stone.
Peter gives us so much hope that God can work with our humanity with all of its foibles and make us rock-solid disciples, if only we stay close to the Rock of Jesus Mercy.