Holy scripture is replete with challenges. Many times in the Gospels Our Lord lays down commandments that are calling each of us to rise above nature and do the seemingly impossible: “Pray always,” “Be ye perfect,” “Love your enemies,” or — the ultimate challenge when it comes to any human obstacles that would compete with the love of God, no matter how dear — ”If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14;26). “Hate,” in this verse can be called hyperbolic, but as Monsignor Charles Pope explains most insightfully in one of his recent columns, the Hebrew tongue, especially in its use of the language of prophecy, rarely employed comparative adverbs but relied more on direct verbs. (“The Meanest Things Jesus Ever Said,” Community in Mission, Nov. 17) If this is correct then Our Lord in this last verse is commanding that His followers love Him more than parents, etc; more even than their own lives.
This sacred use of provocative language would be a fascinating subject to explore some other time. However, it is not the theme of this brief article. Presently, I am concerned with certain facts related in the Gospels that are not challenges in themselves but challenges to my own understanding. They are mysteries to me, not mysteries of faith, but simply puzzles that leave me asking for an explanation. There are many such, but I am only presenting two here. And I have the great scripture scholar, Cornelius a Lapide, to help me.
“And the eleven disciples went into Galilee, unto the mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And seeing him they adored: but some doubted. And Jesus coming, spoke to them, saying: All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt 28:16-20, my italic). (Some commentators think that these words of commission were actually delivered later to those gathered for His ascension from Mount Olivet in Jerusalem. This is a controverted point.)
A Lapide notes that Saint Matthew omits the appearances of the Resurrected Christ to the eleven in Jerusalem and, after relating the appearance of the angel and then Our Lord Himself to the holy women at the tomb, he takes his readers directly to Galilee. Reading the Gospel accounts of Our Lord’s appearances to Mary Magdalene and the other women and the words of the angel to them at the tomb I did wonder why Jesus and His angel told the women to tell the Apostles that He would meet them in Galilee when He was about to appear to them in the Upper Room in Jerusalem? (As we know from Saint John’s Gospel Jesus did manifest Himself some time later, before His ascension, to a few of the Apostles fishing on the Sea of Galilee, which I will refer to in a moment.) A Lapide explains that the apparition in Galilee, which the Savior had previously announced, would be a “public event,” on a mountain, before a large crowd of five hundred disciples. This apparition, with its evangelical commandment, as we read it in Matthew, was also related by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:6.
How are we to understand this “doubt” among some of these disciples as Saint Matthew makes note of it?
Let us see what our exegete a Lapide says:
“‘Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee. And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him, but some doubted.’ Not of the eleven Apostles, but of the other disciples. For all the Apostles had now been confirmed by so many visions and proofs, that they did not doubt that Christ had risen. Or if any one prefers to refer this expression to the Apostles, it must be understood as meaning, they had before doubted, but were not now in doubt.
“Moreover, Christ appeared in the same form as He had when He was alive, so that He was recognized by the Apostles as the same and not another. Whereupon He veiled His brightness, for the weak eyes of mortal men would not have been able to bear it. S. Augustine (de Civ. Dei, 22, c. 19) says, ‘We must believe that the brightness which Christ’s body had when He rose was veiled from the eyes of the disciples.’”
So, we must understand this “doubt” as coming from some of the five hundred, enough for Saint Matthew to take note of it. Those who doubted had not seen the Resurrected Christ until this apparition. But Jesus appeared on this mountain with His glory veiled, lest they be overcome by such a luminous theophany. Perhaps they wondered, notwithstanding the testimony of the Apostles, whether this man was indeed the same Jesus whom they had known in His mortal life. We do not know. We live by faith: “blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed” (John 20:29).
Jesus, Risen from the dead, said to Saint Peter as He took him aside privately on the shore of the Sea of Galilee: “Follow Me.”
This is the second verse that arrests my pious curiosity at the moment:
“Amen, amen I say to thee, when thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. And this he said, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had said this, he saith to him: Follow me. Peter turning about, saw that disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also leaned on his breast at supper, and said: Lord, who is he that shall betray thee?’ Him therefore when Peter had seen, he saith to Jesus: Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith to him: So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? follow thou me” (John 21:18-22, my italic).
Notice that in this passage the Lord says to Saint Peter twice, “Follow Me.” As with his calling from the very beginning while mending his fisherman’s net on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus said to Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, “Follow Me” and He would make them fishers of men. And, again later, when Peter remonstrated with His Master to forgo His passion, Jesus scolded him severely,“Get Behind Me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me: because thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men” (Matt. 16:23). Satan is a Hebrew word meaning “adversary.” In this instance Peter was acting as an adversary to the Will of God. “Get behind Me;” that is to say, “Follow Me.” So now, at the end, after asking Peter thrice if he loved Him, Jesus says to the fisherman, “Follow Me.” Follow Me, the Good Shepherd, as My Vicar.
There are ten occasions in the Gospels when Our Lord commands His disciples to follow Him. . We follow Him by believing in Him and obeying His commandments and walking in His light, bearing the crosses He gives us: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Matt. 16:24).
“‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, when thou wast young thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee and lead thee whither thou wouldst not,’ i.e., by thy natural will of sense, or feeling. For by the rational will Peter desired this above all things. S. Chrysostom says, Christ predicts his martyrdom, showing him in what way and how much he ought to love Christ and His sheep, even unto His cross.
“Admirably says S. Augustine, ‘That denier and lover, puffed up by presumption, cast down by denial, purified by tears, approved by confession, crowned by enduring, found such an end, that he died for perfect love of Christ’s name, with Whom in his perverse precipitance he had promised to die. Made strong by His resurrection, he does what in his weakness he had rashly promised. And now he fears not the destruction of this life, because the Lord having arisen, had shown him the pattern of another life.’”
Citing certain Fathers, A Lapide makes note that Peter was chosen by Christ to imitate Him in his death. Our Lord, being the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd, willed that he who would “Feed the sheep” after Him, in his office as Vicar of Christ, should be like Him in being nailed to a cross. This martyrdom of Saint Peter would, Jesus said, “glorify God.” And that by his blood and by his humility. So comments a Lapide: “Such was Peter, who when as a disciple of Christ he was brought to the cross, asked that he might be crucified upside down. He feared not the suffering, but he shrunk from equality with the Lord’s cross, manifesting unto all men the power of his marvelous humility, and preserving amidst his torments the discipline of the mystery (of the cross).”
“Follow Me, that as I have gone before thee to the cross, so do thou follow Me to the same. And let not the cross seem to thee too hard to undergo for Me, for I first endured it for thee. For thee and for the rest of the faithful I went before to it, and smoothed the way. For it behooves thee to follow Me, as well in thy life and pastoral office, as in death and the cross, that thou shouldest lay down thy life for the sheep, and be a guide to the rest of the faithful to the cross and martyrdom.
With this summons to follow Him, Jesus manifests His affection for Peter. An affection that He manifested from the very beginning when, upon meeting Peter at the introduction of his brother, Andrew, Jesus looked at him and said:“Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is interpreted Peter” (John 1:42). Twice Our Lord addressed Peter by way of respect for his father Jona. It would be like a close friend addressing me as “Brian, son of Austin.” Those who are close to a mentor whom they love, show their gratitude to their teacher by following him. And, likewise, a teacher displays his affection for a disciple by encouraging such a one to follow him. So, here, in this exquisite passage, the Risen Master takes Peter aside with the words “Follow Me.” Did Peter hear secret words that illumined his soul at this divine beckoning? Words that, like those heard by Saint Paul in the third heaven, are beyond human expression? I like to think so.
A Lapide also aptly quotes Saint Irenæus, “‘To follow the Saviour is to partake of salvation: to follow, the light is to partake of light , now they who are in the light do not themselves illuminate the light, but are enlightened by it.’”
Remember that Peter, at the Last Supper, leaning not on Christ but on himself, protested his loyalty to the Lord, going so far as to say that he would die with Him and “for Him”: “Why cannot I follow thee now?” he said, “I will lay down my life for thee” (John 13:37). Jesus had just said to him prior, “Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow hereafter.” Yes, “hereafter,” but not now, “for the cock shall not crow, till thou deny me thrice (vs.38).
There we have it. A mysterious summons issued privately, apart from the other Apostles, and so intimately to Peter, to “feed the sheep,” “to follow Christ” that he might lead the whole Church to Christ.