Something to Celebrate
Today’s Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter is an occasion to give thanks for the office conferred on our saint and passed to his successors. Such a movement of gratitude leads us, naturally, to give thanks for the role of this office in safeguarding the deposit of faith and for the Church commissioned with communicating this faith to the ends of the earth.
From the beginning, however, the individuals who have occupied Peter’s office—including Saint Peter himself—have been subject to weakness, and all of the Church’s members (with the exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary) have failed, to one degree or another, to love perfectly. Mindful of this, is it still conceivable, after two millennia of accumulated infidelities, that we should observe this feast? Is there, indeed, something in the Church worth celebrating year after year?
Taken at face-value, our reflections on the Church’s iniquities present a strikingly different image than the one Saint John offers in the Book of Revelation. He describes the New Jerusalem (understood to be the Church) as the Bride of the Lamb:
Then came one of the seven angels … saying, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal… (Revelation 21:9-11)
How can we reconcile the reality of the Church as a sinful multitude with the equally “real” (though not yet fully realized) reality of the Church as spotless Bride? Marriage unites bride and bridegroom as one, but in this case, the Bridegroom is Jesus Christ, the “fairest of the sons of men” (Psalm 45), while the members that make up His Bride are fallen and weak. A single drop of food coloring changes the color of a glass of clear water. Analogously, when the Divine Bridegroom takes His Bride once and for all to Himself in His Passion, does the sinfulness of the Bride sully the nobility of the Bridegroom?
The answer is, in fact, present in the above passage from Revelation. But perhaps it would be helpful to turn to the Gospels to illuminate our reflection further. Saint Mark describes a scene from Jesus’ public ministry in which a leper approached the Lord and asked to be cleansed of his illness. Jesus, “moved with pity… stretched out His hand and touched him,” and immediately the leper was healed (Mark 1:41-42).
An extraordinary moment! A man beset by leprosy—and therefore ritually impure, according to Jewish law—is cleansed when the God-Man reaches out and touches him. Legally, contact with a leper would have made Jesus unclean, but any onlooker would have seen that the encounter with Christ had purified the leper instead.
What is important about this scene for our purposes is this: it is the presence and the touch of Christ that cleanses, heals, and sanctifies. He sees the leper and, displaying a mysterious predilection, reaches out and touches him. In our above passage from Revelation, the Church is radiant not with self-made virtue or manufactured beauty, but with the glory of God. He has chosen her and given Himself up for her—in a word, He has loved her. That she is loved by Love Himself is her glory and the source of her transformation.
This is likewise true for Saint Peter, whose threefold denial of Christ occurs shortly after he boasts that he will never forsake the Lord. The saint whose office we celebrate today is not listed among those who stand at the foot of the Cross. Yet Jesus remains fixed to its wooden beams in love, in order to win for Peter and for the Church the opportunity of salvation. The surety of Jesus’ love is what enables Peter, after the Resurrection, to meet the Lord’s gaze once again and to admit, in humility, the feebleness of his own love. Like the leper, whom Jesus looked upon in his poverty, Peter knows himself to be loved and is thus raised to a new dignity as a witness of Christ to the world.
We are now more equipped to answer our original question: Is there still something in the Church worth celebrating? Yes—and that “something” is nothing less than God Himself, who has reached out and touched His Bride in her poverty. He has, indeed, loved her and united her to Himself. Fully aware of her sins and frailties, He nevertheless refuses to violate His promise of fidelity. The cost to the Church is to present herself, repeatedly and in humility, to God so that she may be purified and may fulfill her task of praising Him. This can be the lens through which we observe the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter. It is not a refusal to acknowledge the reality of sin; rather, it is the celebration of the deeper, more remarkable reality: the bounty and gratuity of God’s love.
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