In the liturgical assemblies, common meals, trips in caravan, public meetings, at every opportunity, the Jewish society discussed the issue on who would be the greatest, to whom greater honor belonged.
The blessed in heaven were involved in this race for the first places. They were caegorized into seven classes, led by the martyrs. It is the same with the God of Israel, who could not be outdone by eastern deities, Greek and Egyptian, to whom the title “great” was inevitably given. For this reason Solomon proclaimed: “Yahweh is greater than all the gods” (Ex 18:11) and Moses assured the Israelites: “Yahweh is the God of gods and the Lord of lords. He is the great God, the strong and terrible God” (Dt 10:17).
In the last centuries before Christ, the statements about the greatness of God had multiplied dramatically. He was “the most high God, the great” (Est 8:12q). “Lord, you are great and glorious, wonderful, strong, invincible” (Jdt 16:13) and he was expected, therefore, to manifest his greatness. We read on Christmas eve: “We await our blessed hope—the glorious manifestation of our great God and Savior Christ Jesus” (Tit 2:13).
And he appeared, in all his grandeur: a weak, poor, defenseless child “wrapped in swaddling clothes” by a sweet and caring mother of fourteen. It was just the beginning of his manifestation which culminated on the cross. From that day all the criteria of greatness have been turned upside down.
To internalize the message, we repeat “Only the children are able to grasp the mysteries of the kingdom of God.”
Through different routes, they arrive at the same destination
With a phrase well known to us—“They were of one heart and soul”—Luke summarizes the full agreement existing in the primitive community (Acts 4:32). Yet, in the history of the church, tensions and contrasts as strong as those that occurred in the early decades are rarely recorded. The Christians of Jewish origin—jealous custodians of their people’s religious customs—demanded that they continue to comply with the requirements of the law, as a sign of loyalty to God. The more open-minded spirits instead were conscious that: the traditions of the ancients had fulfilled their task (to bring to Christ). Continuing to impose them constituted a serious obstacle to the Gentiles who wished to adhere to the gospel.
Peter—with a conservative upbringing, though not fanatic—tried to mediate between the two groups of the community, but all were a little discontented.
Paul—a fanatic traditionalist—had departed from the more rigid positions of the Jewish religion. He had come to a radical break with the past, to the point that he became intolerant of those who—like Peter—had not the courage to make radical choices. A day in Antioch of Syria, he publicly insulted Peter by calling him a hypocrite (Gal 1:11-14).
Later, relations between the two apostles were restored. Peter, in a letter, calls Paul “our beloved brother” (2 Pe 3:15). Together they gave their lives to Christ and today we celebrate their feast together. Through different paths—and very slowly—they have come to recognize in Jesus the Messiah of God.
Peter met for the first time the man who was to become his master along the Sea of Galilee. Earlier he identified him as the carpenter from Nazareth. Then he realized that he was a great prophet. Later, in Caesarea Philippi, he finally discovered his true identity. He declared: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:13).
He professed a formula of perfect faith. However, to believe in Christ does not mean to adhere to a pack of truth, but to share the life choices that he proposes. The dreams that Peter cultivated was not the Lord’s. “You are thinking not as God—he said—but as people do” (Mk 8:33).
He began to understand only in the light of Easter. He timidly confessed his fragile faith: “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you” (Jn 21:17).
Paul has traveled a different path. At first, he considered Jesus as an opponent to fight with, a wrecker of the messianic hopes of Israel, a blasphemer who preached a God different from that of the spiritual leaders of his people. He had known him, “according to the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16), according to the religious, political and social criteria of this world. Based on these parameters, he could not but judge him a criminal, a subversive of the established order, a heretic.
On the road to Damascus he received the light from above and understood: Jesus, the crucified one, is God’s Messiah. From that moment everything that he considered a profit, he now reckon all as garbage (Phil 3:7-8).
If our experience of faith is less painful than that of the two apostles, whose feast we celebrate today, perhaps it is not equally authentic.
To interiorize the message, we repeat:
“The roads are different, but all lead to the Lord.”
When we enter a building we immediately realize what function it is assigned. A classroom is decorated differently from an infirmary, a discotheque, an office. It is easy to recognize a church: the altar and the tabernacle to house the Eucharist, the paintings and the statues of saints and the baptistery. The sacred vessels allow us to identify immediately the environment dedicated to prayer, worship and devotional practices.
However, the architecture and excessive decor of some of our churches do not always suggest the idea of the place where the community is called to be fed at the double table of the word and the bread.
Whoever enters the chapels in use in the African forests immediately captures this message. The chapels are bare and unadorned huts built with mud and straw. I recall them with nostalgia. The stakes that serve as seats are arranged in a circle to promote the unity of the assembly and to ensure that the participants face each other and not turn their backs. The altar is at the center. It is a table, certainly the best in the village, but simple and poor. A lectern, with the lectionary opened on the day’s reading, is on the altar. Nothing else.
Here they are clearly marked: the two loaves or, if we like, the only bread in two forms or the double table. These are the signs: the altar of the Eucharist, the lectionary of the Word.
The Second Vatican Council has recalled it: “The Church has never failed to take the bread of life, taking it from the table both of the Word of God and the body of Christ and offer it to the faithful” (DV 21).
To internalize the message, we repeat “The material bread keeps us alive for another day; the word of God gives eternal life.”
It is not enough to believe in God. It is important to check in what God one believes?
The Muslims profess their faith in Allah, the creator of heaven and earth. He is the one who rules from above, who established the right prescriptions and holy prohibitions and watches, to reward those who observe them and punish the offenders. They do not understand that he lowers himself to the level of people, and that he can go down to meet and talk with them. Is this the God we believe in?
In the African tribes with whom I lived, God is invoked only in times of drought. In fact, it is believed that rain comes from him. For other needs they appeal to the ancestors. It is not even asked if God is even interested in diseases, misfortunes, harvest of the fields, the affairs of people. Is this perhaps our God?
To these questions we give some negative answers. However, let’s ask ourselves: what image of God lies behind the widespread belief that in the day of judgment, the Lord will severely assess every person’s life? To whom do Christians usually run to in difficult times to implore graces? Let us face it: we worship a God who still retains many features of the pagan deities, susceptible, strict and distant.
Today’s feast was very lately introduced in the liturgical calendar (only around 1350). It offers the opportunity, through reflection on the word of God, to purify the image that we have made of him and to discover new and surprising features of his face.
To internalize the message, we repeat,
“Show me, O Lord, your true face.”