Today's Gospel is Peter's declaration of faith at Caesarea Philippi. If you're a Catholic, reading this is one of those rather triumphalist moments we (occasionally) allow ourselves: the supremacy of Peter, the binding and loosing, the gates of Hell not prevailing. Today it feels good to be a Catholic.
I have always been a bit of a fascination with the place where Our Lord chose to ask Peter to make this profession of faith. Caesarea Philippi is way oop north, on the same latitude as the coastal port of Tyre, but way inland on the lower slopes of Mt Hermon and on the boarders with Lebanon. It is well known that Caeseria Philippi was also called Panias/Banias and had been settled by Hellenests since about 300BC when Alexander the Great had conquered these eastern provinces. Its alternative name gives a clue to the pagan worship of Pan that took place there. Whatever went on, it was probably highly sexualised and scandalous and just what every good Jewish person whould bring their children up to abhor. By the time of Christ, on top of the sites dedicated to Pan, was a temple dedicated to the emperor Augustus. This place was so just the right spot for the events between Our Lord and Peter to happen. The Church would destroy the twin evils of pagan worship of idols and the deification of earthly emperors. Oh, and look at that cave, it is the very mouth of hell, the locals referred to it as that, what a setting! Oh, and the place is also one of the sources of the River Jordan. Talk about theatrics, talk about perfection. Referring back to my Rahner rant from yesterday, using his logic, there has only been one "epoch" for the Chruch, it is the "epoch centred on Caeserea Philippi", we're still living this momentous event.
The "rocky outcrop" at Caesarea Philippi.
None of this will be news to any of you, you are much better read than I. But on coming home from Mass today I got to thinking how Christ's disciples must have felt, schlepping all that way to Caeseria Philippi from Galilee. They were heading deep into Gentile territory, it must have felt very threatening, they were well out of their comfort zone. What could they dredge from their knowledge of sacred scripture about the place?
So I got my bible lands maps out and tried to find what was there before Panias. Less than two miles from where they were (ie. roughly in the same spot) had stood the city of Dan (founded about 1200 BC). I'm sure the disciples would have been awareof this. Let us go back to the Book of Judges and see what went on there.
It is not an edifying tale (Judges 17 & 18). A man called Micah and his mother make a graven image out of silver for their home. Even the writer of Judges squirms a bit saying "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes". A dodgy Levite from Bethlehem comes into town and Micah persuades him to stay and be his priest. Meanwhile the Danites are looking for somewhere to settle, and come across Micah and his household and his priest. Eventually they persuade the priest to go off with them, taking the graven image with them to the town of Laish way up north, where they slaughter the "quiet and unsuspecting " people of the city, claim it as their own and rename it Dan.
So as much as the disciples may wish to pour scorn on the idoatory in the place where they find themselves, they will have to check themselves as, to their shame, their ancestors (fellow sons of Jacob) had graven images at that site too. It would have surely added to Simon Peter's humility at becoming the rock.