River DanCaesarea Philippi is situated at the foot hills of Mt Hermon on the borders between Jordan and Israel. It is an extraordinary place. The waters of the river Dan, one of the sources of the river Jordan, flow out of the base of the mountain, ice cold and fresh. Carved into the side of the mountain are the remains of the cave dedicated to the god Pan to whom the area was originally dedicated. The generative powers of the gushing waters were taken as signs of the fertile qualities of this god of nature, still captured in its current name of Banyas. It is a truly significant place. During the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth it was the site of the capital of the region ruled by Herod the Great’s son Philip. It was he who dedicated Paneas (Town of Pan) to Caesar.

It is little wonder that one of the key questions of Matthew’s Gospel , “Who do you say the Son of Man is?”(the gospel for the coming Sunday) is set in this part of ancient Israel. The area was redolent with answers of all kinds. The area spoke of the awesome power both of the fertility god of nature and the might of ancient Rome and it’s Emperor. Powers rarely questioned. Where we’re concerned the context for the question put by Jesus appears to be very different, no longer do we believe in the god Pan and the power of ancient Rome has passed away. However the realities which they represent are very much present in our culture and society. We are surrounded by all kinds of offers “guaranteed to give us life in abundance”, not gushing from the foot of Mt Hermon but flowing out at us in a constant stream of images and adverts: -coming from the various forms of media, offering a plethora of alternative possibilities of life style to one and all. Total freedom of choice: ‘after all it’s your life, do with it what you will’. As for Caesar and his military power, he has simply changed his clothes. He now wears a collar and tie or a free flowing garb. The approach of Pax Romana (Pax Britannica or Pax Americana), which maintains peace through the use or threat of violence has more adherents than the more vulnerable approach of Pax Christi.  The world of Caesar hasn’t quite passed away.     

The question put by Jesus is a real question but it is not a request for a definition of belief, a catechism answer, no matter how accurate that answer might be. It is an invitation to answer from the depth of our own relationship with the person of Jesus. I love the story told by Anthony De Mello where he imagines a conversation between Jesus and a Christian:


Jesus And you, who do you say I am?
Christian:  You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Jesus: Well and truly answered. But how unfortunate you are that you learnt this from mortal man. It has not yet been revealed to by my heavenly Father.
Christian: True, Lord. I have been cheated. Somebody gave me all the answers before your Heavenly Father could speak. I marvel at your own wisdom that you said nothing to Simon yourself, but waited for your Father to speak first.”

The whole process of the RCIA at its heart is a journey of formation rather than of information. Sadly in many cases we give in to the danger of overloading the information to the detriment of the formation. Next Sunday’s Gospel gives us time to pause whether we are continuing to journey each week with an enquiry group or a catechumenal group or taking the time out to prepare for a new start after the holidays. The question still remains in our complex world: “Who do YOU say the Son of man is?”