Through the gate of heaven
Peter Gallagher SJ reflects on the powerful yet humble faith which we celebrate on the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.
Look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church (The Order of Mass, 126). This heartfelt prayer is expressed at Mass just before the sign of peace. Look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church. These words capture not only our vivid sense of unworthiness in the presence of our Lord and his sacred mysteries but also our profound confidence in the holiness of the body of Christ. This holiness is shown in Jesus’ saving work, especially on the cross. The sacrifice offered in the Mass is a solemn remembering and re-enactment of that great deed of self-giving. The holiness of Christ-crucified is exhibited in the Church, which is his body.
On the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul it is that powerful yet humble faith which we celebrate. The gates of the underworld can never hold out against the Church built on the rock (Matthew 16.17)
Beyond the block between us and God
The Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4.17). We might be tempted to suspect, however, that we are already locked up in the underworld. There is a kind of deadness to God which imprisons us. The dungeon of sin shuts us off from goodness.
The apostolic faith, which we have received from Saints Peter and Paul, can break through the seemingly impenetrable barrier between us and the sources of goodness provided by the creator of all. The barrier might be sin or indifference or the neglect of the most important things. Whatever is the block between us and God, faith guides us to a breakthrough humbly yet with great confidence in Christ. We do not deserve the breaking through of the barrier between us and God, but it happens thanks to the mission of the saviour.
The gates of the underworld can never hold out against the Church (Matthew 16.17). Our own little hell and the wickedness around us are less powerful than our shared faith in God’s mercy. The ‘deadness’ which can afflict us is challenged and then transformed by what the apostles have to tell us about Christ and his achievement. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16.18). These keys are given to Peter for the work of binding and loosing. The apostle has the task of securing faith and of liberating people. On this rock (Matthew 16.15) the Church is built by the Lord. It seems that the gates of heaven have been built not far from the gates of the underworld, despite the gulf between them. The promises of Christ draw us quickly from where we were lost to where we are safe, from where we were miserable to where we are happy. The Lord himself soars over the gulf between heaven and hell. He oversees all the life’s work that might be needed for us, even with God’s grace, to travel between the place where we were lost to where God finds us. We soar with him. He abolishes some immensities.
Holiness and salvation
The faith of the Church includes confidence in her own capacity to bring us to God. All the time Peter was under guard the Church prayed to God for him unremittingly (Acts 12.3). The body of Christ is lifted up. The Father accepts the offering of the Son which incudes us as well as himself. The Holy Spirit, at work in us, enables us to accept the abundance which is offered to us by God. He wants to save us and also to make us holy. These transformations are not exactly in sequence. Holiness and salvation come to us inextricably linked to each other. Saint Peter and Saint Paul help us to understand this proximity of the best things to the worst things. As we knock at the gate of heaven the clang of the shutting gates of hell is still audible behind us. We earnestly hope of course to put a great deal of distance between ourselves and the worst things. They, nevertheless, pursue us. The apostolic faith strengthens us to withstand this pursuit. We are grateful that the Lord, the hound of heaven, chases after us when we run away from him.
Guided by Peter and Paul
The preface of the holy apostles Peter and Paul describes Saint Peter as foremost in confessing the faith (Preface of Saints Peter and Paul). He is our leader in a faith which we are to confess to others. Saint Paul outstanding preacher (ibid.) is the crystal-clear expounder of a faith which must be intelligible if it is to be communicable. The grace of God has enabled us freely to place our trust in Christ whom the apostles present to us. Our wholehearted and clear-eyed acceptance of God’s love and mercy enables us to stride through a door which has been opened for us. Peter and Paul knew what it was to be prisoners and also to emerge free from jails. They passed through two guard posts one after the other and reached the iron gate that leading to the city (Acts 12.8).
We walk with Jesus in his way. He has faced the worst things so that we might be spared them. The apostles, explaining what he has done for us, guide us towards the Lord. There is no reason to look back.
Peter Gallagher SJ