LOSING THE WILD HORSE IN YOU (Mt 16:13-19): 29 June 2008 (Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul)
Today we remember two great men of the Church: one an uneducated fisherman, Peter, from Galilee, that region in Palestine where men are noted even in the Gospels for their thick probinsyano accents; and the other a Pharisee, Paul, as learned as one could ever get in New Testament times, a specialist—and also a fanatic—of the Jewish Law. There are probably no two apostles in the Gospels more different from each other; yet today, we recognize them both as the two men whose lives and works have most profoundly shaped the beginnings of our Church. Their importance and prominence are evident in the city of Rome: At the heart of the Vatican, of course, is the great Basilica of St. Peter; not so well-known, but no less important, is St. Paul-outside-the-walls, where stands a larger-than-life statue of St. Paul.
Two great men, two apostles of Christ and leaders of the Church. One walked with Christ from the beginning of his ministry. The other never even met Christ during our Lord’s earthly life.
We all know the story: Peter, formerly known as Simon, was an uneducated fisherman who first bumped into our Lord by the Sea of Galilee. The next thing he knew he found himself standing in the midst of a miraculous catch of fish. And while all about him, his companions celebrated and scrambled around to sell their catch for the best profit, he was afraid. So he went over to Jesus, and told him–of all things–to leave him: “For I am a sinful man.” But instead our Lord invited him to be a “fisher of men” for a change, and he left everything—his nets, his boat, and even his wife (he must have been married for he had a mother-in-law!)—and his life was never the same again.
His three years of companionship with Jesus did not immediately transform him into the great man he later became—not his change of name from Simon to Peter, not even the promise of our Lord to make him the foundation of the Church and give him the keys of heaven, as we read in today’s readings. For as we know, at the time when our Lord most needed a friend, during his arrest, Peter ran away. He was too scared for his own life to stay. He abandoned his friend, and as predicted, denied knowing our Lord three times in order to save his own skin. One of the saddest and most moving moments in the story of Peter in the Gospels happens that night in the courtyard of the high priest, when after denying the Lord three times, while being led out into the courtyard, Jesus turns and looks at Peter. And all four gospel accounts, diverse in many things, report in one voice: Peter went out and wept bitterly.
St. Paul used to be a Pharisee, and we all know that Pharisees weren’t exactly Jesus’ favorite characters because of their insistence on the Law without proper regard for its effects on the people. But this one was worse: This one went about persecuting the early Christians. In fact, Paul, at the time known as Saul, was on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians when he quite literally stumbled over Jesus: Knocked to the ground, he heard the Risen Lord asking him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” That vision was to transform him from a zealous Jewish fanatic to a no-less zealous Christian missionary to the Gentiles.
I’ve often wondered why out of all the 365 days, the Church has opted to honor these two great men, Peter and Paul, on this one same day? Isn’t each of them special enough to deserve a day of his own? What is the reason, therefore, that has made the Church reserve one day of solemnity for these two different men?
Let me venture a couple of guesses: First of all, when our Lord first met these two men, they were by no means outstanding in their virtues. They both had not exactly been born saints. Peter was quite impulsive, the type of person who rushed into things but always somehow managed to leave his head behind. That’s exactly what happened at the Garden of Gethsemane: When the mob led by Judas Iscariot came to arrest Jesus, what did he do? Peter pulled out his sword and cut off an ear. Paul was, of course, a religious fanatic who caused much suffering to the early Church.
Secondly, just as both men were no strangers to sin, they were also quite acquainted with suffering. Both had in their own way sinned greatly, but almost because of this, both also grew to love Christ greatly, a love that many times moved them to tears. I am often struck at how shamelessly the New Testament would report how these two men actually wept out of love for our Lord. I think they had a great capacity for suffering because—and only because they both had a great capacity for loving for the Lord. This love was the same love that transformed Peter from the impulsive, unthinking, and cowardly Simon—at times paralyzed by his fear of the Jews—into the Rock of the Church, who allowed no arrest, no imprisonment, and like his Lord, not even his own crucifixion and death in Rome, to make him waiver. He followed His Lord to the very end, without turning back.
In the case of Paul, it was also his deep love for Christ, whom he had so zealously persecuted, that empowered him to go to alien lands to just as zealously preach the Good News of Christ to the Gentiles, even if this meant persecution, imprisonment, loneliness, and even misunderstanding from the other leaders of the Church. We only need to recall that beautiful prayer of his towards the end of his life: “Only this I want, but to know the Lord,” and “I have run the race. I have fought the good fight.”
The same passion that made Peter rush in to make all those promises to the Lord and the same drive that possessed Paul to arrest the early Christians—this was the very same source of energy and love empowered them to become the two main pillars of the Church. Both were men of passion, men of foolish excessiveness. They were what St. Ignatius called “wild horses.” Perhaps this is one reason why the Church in her wisdom has decided to devote this one day of solemnity to these two great apostles: Peter and Paul were the wild horses of God, whose foolish and excessive love for Christ made them do all the great and foolish things they did—and how they made all the difference!
Today let’s examine the kind of love we have for the Lord. How willing are we to do great things for the Lord or to suffer out of love for Him? Is our love anywhere half as foolish and excessive as that of Peter and Paul? Or has our love grown “wiser”–much more pragmatic, more practical, and more innocuous so that it hardly rearranges the furniture of our lives? In other words, perhaps our love has become more open to compromises because it is too mediocre, too lukewarm to be considered as love. Perhaps we have learned to live our lives all its aspects safely compartmentalized, including our faith—safely shelved away except for the occasions when we go to Mass and attend to our other religious obligations.?
Now, here’s a not-so-Quick Question for you: Do you still have the wild horse in you? Or has the passion to love the Lord become a thing of the past? Maybe you’ve become like the rest of us, more like domesticated cows, content with fattening ourselves with our daily dose of urgent concerns—which in the greater scheme of things is really just all straw.
If you feel up to it, share a thought, a feeling, or a question. Who knows? It might help others.