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Friday, August 19, 2011

"You are Peter..."

Statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.
Names are important. They are how others know us and are one in the same with our identity. Think about it: your name is one of the few permanent things in this life that is given to you. Even our language reflects the deep level of identity associated with our names. For example, we don't say "He is called John." No, we say, "He is John." We don't say, "I am called Susan." We say, "I am Susan." Our name and our identity are one in the same in language, thought and culture.

This is even reflected in the way we worship as Catholics. Holy Scripture gave us some precedents for honoring the name of the Lord: the Psalmist wrote in Scripture that "[a]ll the nations you have made shall come and bow before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name." (Psalm 86:9). St. Paul wrote to the Church at Philippi that "at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow..." (Philippians 2:10). These instructions are fulfilled in the customs of the Mass. Have you ever noticed that during the Mass, Fr. Joe and many others bow their heads slightly at every mention of the name of "the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" and at the names of Jesus and of Mary? This is to show respect to these names and, at the same time, for the persons that they identify.

This isn't some sort of hyper-inflated piety. The Church actually instructs us to do this in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM for short) - which is basically the official instruction book for how to pray the Mass. Specifically, GIRM 275 says: "A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated."

So, even in worship, respect for names is central. Since names are so important in God's design, then, it is a really big deal when the Scriptures record that someone's name was changed. When God changes someone's name (as he does only a few times in Scripture), he changes their identity for a new purpose according to his plans. He changes their name when he changes what they are to become. For example, Abram became Abraham, because he was to be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:1, 5).

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is another important example of God changing a person's name and their identity.

The story comes from the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 16:13-20).  It surrounds the apostle that we know as Peter. But he wasn't always called Peter - the Gospel reading tells us that his original name was Simon bar Jonah, or "Simon, son of John." In the reading, Jesus asked Simon what people were saying about him. Finally, he asked Simon: "Who do you say that I am?" Simon's response was pivotal. He replied: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

That response, given not in response to proofs, but given in pure and unadulterated faith, changed everything. With that response, Jesus knew that he had his leader - the one he would use to be the chief apostle and upon which he would build the new, universal and everlasting Israel: the Church. Jesus proclaimed Simon "blessed" (can you imagine being called blessed by Jesus himself? wow -- what an honor!) and then he did something amazing: he changed Simon's name.

"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it." (Mt. 16:17-18, emphasis mine).


Now, to us in 21st century America, Peter is a perfectly normal name (he was a Brady, after all!). But in the first century, in the Aramaic language in which Jesus and his disciples conversed, the name was virtually unheard of. Super strange, in fact. "Peter" is derived from the from the Greek "Petros" (the language in which the New Testament was written). But Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic (a form of Hebrew). In Aramaic, the name would be Kepha. It means "rock", referring to a foundational stone or natural slab. "You are Kepha, and on this Kepha I will build my Church," Jesus would have said. From this, it is clear that Peter's confession of faith led to Jesus declaring that he would build his Church upon Peter as its chief pastor. Simon's name and identity were changed by God. He was now Peter, the foundation of the Church.

But, of course, it's not that simple. You see, some Protestants argue that Peter is not the foundation upon which Jesus built his Church (if he is, that gives credence to the Catholic position that all Christians should be in communion with the Pope who is the Successor of Peter). Instead, they argue that in the New Testament Greek, Jesus says "You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my Church." Notice, they'll say, the different forms of the word used for the name (Petros) and the foundation (petra). In their argument, they believe that this proves that Jesus wasn't calling Peter the foundation of his Church, because the words are different. "What is the foundation if it's not Peter?", you may ask them. They'll reply that the foundation is "faith."

Here is the deal: Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and in Aramaic only one version of the word is involved: Kepha. It is gender-neutral. But in Greek, words are gender-specific. In other words, there are masculine and feminie forms of words.

When Matthew wrote his Gospel and translated this exchange into first century Greek, he ran into this translation problem. The Greek word petra, which means a large, foundational rock, ends in "a", which makes it a feminine word. "Petra" would be a feminine name. So, Matthew simply followed the rules of Greek grammar and used the masculine version ("Petros") for the name. But while Petros also means "rock", it usually refers to a small, insignificant pebble.

So, it seems that the rules of grammar and gender-specific nouns unwittingly created a major source of contention for the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century who rejected the pope and his Church. They seized on the different versions of the name in Greek (petra and Petros) to argue that Peter is not the foundation of the Church. But when you understand the issue about gender-specific terms and know about how this was a moot point in the original Aramaic words that Jesus spoke, their argument falls apart.

So, what's in a name? It seems a whole lot. A poor first century Galilean fisherman named Simon had the faith and tenacity which led Jesus to choose him (of all people) to be the foundation for his Church. Yes, Jesus promised to build his Church upon Peter. "And the gates of hell shall not overcome it."