Orange Fanta and Your Dad's La-Z-Boy
This past September, Deacon Andrew Showers was ordained to the deaconate in St. Peter's Basilica at the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter. Given such a momentous day in his life took place at that very altar, we invited him to share with us today on Freshly Brewed. In today's blog, he is reflecting on the meaning of this Chair and the feast we are celebrating today in honor of it.
Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Chair of Peter. Wait, what?! A chair? Yes, you read that correctly: a feast in the Church calendar dedicated to the Chair of St. Peter. You may be thinking, we celebrate feasts for saints all the time, but why a chair? A good place to start would be to consider these feasts and celebrations on a much broader scale. A liturgical feast day is like a party for a really holy person, right? Kind of. The goal of the Christian life is to conform ourselves with the one who was without sin: Jesus. This union or communion with him prepares us to rise with him at the end times. When we celebrate a liturgical feast day, we actually remember a person in history that, in a particular time and place, conformed his or her life to Christ's. Every feast we celebrate throughout the liturgical year is a celebration of Jesus and his life.
History of the Symbol
It's not a person or a saint that has conformed to Christ, but this chair has significance when we reflect on it in light of the life of Christ. Jesus said, "I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it" (Mt. 5:17). Jesus fulfilled Jewish laws by often adding a deeper meaning to their elements while still retaining their significance. For today's feast, we reflect on the importance of a chair with reference to the rabbinic action of sitting. In the old Jewish tradition, when the rabbi would teach, and do so with authority, he would do so while he was seated. We typically think of a king ruling from a throne or a judge giving a sentence from a bench, but in this context, it meant that someone had the authority from God to teach in His name. He would lead the community in things concerning the divine and help others come to know and love God more through such teaching.
The Gospel of Matthew provides us with a scene that is familiar to us, yet we often may miss an important detail that refers to this topic. The fifth chapter known to many for the beatitudes begins with, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he SAT DOWN his disciples came to him. And he opens his mouth and TAUGHT them…” (Mt. 5:1-2 - emphasis added.) Jesus, the Son of God, teaches in a way that shows us he has authority, and in this scene, he gives us the beatitudes. We use the word authority in the sense that God created the world and is the AUTHOR of everything. He has made the “instruction manual” of the entire created world and, because Jesus is God, when he walked as a man on the earth, he knew how everything worked and taught about it. The beatitudes, then, are a kind of “blueprint for holiness” that we are given to rise up from sin and darkness and to live the Christian life with peace and joy. They are the gift of guides that help us to live out our vocation in the world and glorify God in doing so. By the authority of Jesus, we can be sure that this is truly the way to best live the Christian life in this world.
Institution of the Papacy
We know that in the plan of salvation, Jesus didn’t stay on earth forever, and so the same sign of truth and authority that the Father gave to Jesus to teach during his time on earth was passed on from Jesus to Peter in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!...And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church…” (Mt. 16:16-18).
This passage has many levels of awesomeness. Only after Simon Peter makes his great act of faith does Jesus gives him a new name, which is typically associated with a greater vocation or mission. I mentioned earlier that the Christian life is striving to conform our lives with Christ and to “see as God does.” Faith is the lens needed to do such. In this passage, after Peter acknowledges the reality of Jesus as the Son of God, he is entrusted as the head of the Church and given the authority to teach others about how to see life through the lens of faith. Jesus has set up the holy Church by entrusting the first apostles with the same mission He himself was sent with by the Father (Jn. 20:21), and this is preserved and passed on through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Pope then has the authority to teach, but about what? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI loves orange Fanta, but if he says in an interview that orange Fanta is the greatest soda ever, does that mean we are obliged to believe the same? Although orange Fanta is delicious, this is not the type of teaching authority that has been passed on. The Pope’s teaching power is in reference to matters of faith and morals. The Catechism sheds further light stating, “it is the Magisterium’s (teaching authority) task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error” so that “the people of God abide in the truth that liberates” (CCC 890). What a gift!
Finally, the Chair of Peter is to be a symbol of unity of all the faithful. The Pope is the visible head of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Lumen gentium, from the Second Vatican Council, reminds us that “the Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (n. 23). The Altar of the Chair at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome provides us with a beautiful image of this idea. Four Doctors (very smart people who have contributed significantly to the Church’s understanding of Revelation and Her theology) of the Church are depicted: two from the Latin Church (St. Ambrose on the left and St. Augustine on the right) and two from the Greek Church (St. Athanasius on the left and St. John Chrysostom on the right). The depiction of the four symbolizes the unity of the whole Church around Rome and the primacy of the Pope. None of the four is actually touching the chair to symbolize that the “Office” of the Pope does not depend on how smart they were, but is complimented, protected, and reinforced by the contribution of their theology. In the end, the Church is sustained by the Holy Spirit and this is represented in the stunning window above the Altar of the Chair. The Holy Spirit guides those who teach and preserve the faith, providing we the believers with a certainty of the truthfulness of the message and teaching and the authentic ability to make an act of faith in Spirit and truth.
Many of us grew up with that one distinct chair in the living room - typically a recliner. My dad's was a brown La-Z-Boy that we understood to be the seat of the head of the family. It was the seat from which dad would typically give instruction about life and all it entails. On a few occasions, some form of correction may have been given to us from that memorable chair. Think of the many times the whole family may have been united in the living room around that chair for a holiday or other special occasion. Just as we are thankful for the many lessons we have learned from our parents, so too are we called today to thank God for the gift of the Church and Her guidance in teaching and unifying all the faithful. Celebrating this feast helps us to more deeply understand God's enduring love for us and helps us to rise from any fears that may hold us back, knowing that He has left us with shepherds - the Pope, our Bishops, and our priests - to guide us to a life full of joy and beatitude.
"For you, eternal Shepherd, do not desert your flock,
but through the blessed Apostles
watch over it and protect it always,
so that it may be governed
by those you have appointed shepherds
to lead it in the name of your Son."
- The Chair of St. Peter is a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ's flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity.
- The faithful remain united in belief through the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops.
- The Catechism teaches us that this authority helps us to avoid error, make a true profession of faith, and remain in that truth, which gives us authentic peace and freedom.
Have a great week, and I pray our paths may cross at some point in the future. Know of my prayers for you, and I kindly ask for yours as well for my classmates and me, as we prepare for Priestly Ordination in the Diocese of Madison on June 30, 2017. God love you, and I love you. Verso l'alto!