What captivates me is why Christ poses this question. I don’t believe he did it for himself; Jesus asked it for his disciples. For us.
Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Come the various responses to Jesus’ question (this Sunday’s Gospel). Yet he presses: But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter, feeling compelled, replies, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
A question and a profession
What captivates me is why Christ poses this question. I don’t believe he did it for himself; Jesus asked it for his disciples. He asks it for us. Because Jesus knows that, for our own growth in holiness, we need to come to a point where we are confronted by this question, which we in turn must answer. And once we answer it, everything changes.
The final scene in the 1990 Oscar-winning film Dances with Wolvesis exceptionally powerful. People comment that it is almost impossible to watch the scene without crying. Set in the time of the Civil War, Union soldier John Dunbar gets assigned to a remote, solitary military outpost in Colorado. There he builds a bond of trust with local Lakota Sioux. Dunbar goes so far as to subject himself to many sacrifices, dangers, and much suffering in order to help the Sioux. But at the movie’s end, he must ultimately exile himself if the beloved tribe is to be protected. As Dunbar slowly rides off on his horse, one of the Sioux warriors, Wind In His Hair — a man at odds with Dunbar throughout most of the picture — sits astride his horse at the summit of a high cliff. And from that rocky ridge, he begins to shout at the top of his lungs for all to hear: Dances With Wolves! I am Wind In His Hair! Do you see that I am your friend? Can you see that you will always be my friend? And he keeps hollering it, again and again, insistently. It is a kind of profession. For it is a truth that he needs to proclaim out loud publicly, with all his might, so that the force of it will continue to take hold in his life.
Simon Peter’s profession about Jesus is like that.
The Father’s fathering
As Jesus asserts, flesh and blood has not revealed this to Peter, but the heavenly Father. Just as something beyond the ordinary intervened to transform Wind In His Hair’s antagonism to affection, something supernatural has transpired in the life of Peter, gracing him with the conviction to make this mind-boggling profession.
When precisely did the heavenly Father reveal this to Simon Peter? Certainly when Jesus called Peter to be a fisher of men, choosing him, setting him apart, electing Peter to belong to him. It was as if God the Father were nudging Peter’s shoulder, bidding him, Take a risk. Follow my Son. Later, when Peter saw how Jesus taught his disciples to pray — Our Father — it was a revelation: God has a Son! And it is this man, Jesus is God’s Son!
The only adequate way to answer Christ’s question is personally. By his response, Peter in effect says: Jesus, my answer to your question must be to say who you are for me. You are my Christ. You are the Son of God for me! For, from the moment I first met you, everything in my life has changed.
We know similar moments of the Father fathering us … revealing Jesus as Christ to us. We can say with St. Peter, Jesus, I know you are the Christ, the Son of God, because:
- when I was young and reckless, you saved me from my rebellion and selfishness and foolishness
- you have forgiven my sins
- when I was at the point of desperation because of depression/anxiety/addiction, you came close to me and saved me
- you have answered my prayers
- you refused to leave me alone in my sorrow, in my loneliness, in my meaninglessness
- you have healed loved ones who were sick
- you have changed me for the better in ways I could never have changed myself
- you have given me friends — a way to belong
- you have made miraculous things happen in my life
- you have touched my life in unexpected, surprising ways
- you have not let grief destroy me
- you have overwhelmed me with your tenderness
- you have never given up on me; you constantly give me hope
Call Me Friend
When the day comes that Peter will deny Jesus three times, the memory of this question will move Peter to remorse and repentance. Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson (+1914), author of The Friendship of Christ, wrote in a moving poem about the Son of God:
Let me tell you how he treats me:
He supplies all my wants; He gives me more than I dare ask;
He anticipates my every need; He begs me to ask for more.
He never reminds me of my past ingratitude.
He never rebukes me for my past follies.
Let me tell you further what I think of him:
He is as good as he is great;
His love is as ardent as it is true.
He is as lavish of his promises as he is faithful in keeping them.
I am in all things his debtor, but he bids me call him Friend.
Because Peter has answered this question, he will be ready to answer Christ’s future one: Do you love me? (Jn 21:15). And from the Rock who is himself, Peter will proclaim … and keep on proclaiming: Do you see that I am your friend? Can you see that you will always be my friend?