I begin by reflecting on the optional memorial because it is instructive of the larger message that I drew from the liturgy today. The two saints that the Church honors are Pontian and Hippolytus, Roman clergy in the period of Imperial persecution of Christianity. Pontian was a Bishop of Rome, known for his mercy toward sinners, who was arrested by order of the Emperor who sent him to the mines in Sardinia where he was worked to death. Hippolytus was a priest and theologian in the Diocese of Rome who fell into the heresy of puritan perfectionism. He ranted against the pope (Pontian) for being too lenient to sinners that he himself would have condemned as unworthy of the title Christian. He was convinced that only a small remnant of people would ultimately be saved – and they were those who were in his completely righteous community. They kept the rules and prayed the liturgy perfectly. They also happened to agree with him in his theological assessments which were condemned by the Church as heretical. He too, as a Christian leader, was sent to the Sardinian mines and while suffering there repented of his arrogance and was reconciled to Pontian before they both died in the mines.
It struck me as I considered the liturgy today – both in terms of the memorial and in terms of the readings that one thing we might consider is the meaning of humility as truth. It took the suffering of the Sardinian Mines and Pontian’s humble submission to their suffering to convert Hippolytus from a position of oppressive arrogance to one of humble repentance – it took seeing the truth about God’s loving mercy in ways Hippolytus might not have been able to see while he was an honored priest in his community of righteous Christians.
The readings give us an entry into the mystery of the incarnation and its characteristic of Divine Humility if we look carefully at the contrast in experiences of God that the first and second readings convey.
In the first reading the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of God’s glory. After encountering the Kabod or Glory of God, Ezekiel is trying to describe the experience for others. He portrays the figure as something like a man – that is clothed in fire from the waist down while seated on something like a throne carved out of sapphire. He compares the brilliance of the attire on the upper body of the figure to that of electrum, a gold and silver combination metal that was frequently used for coins in the empires of the ancient world. Such an effort at comparison is doomed to failure since he also asserts that there really is no way to describe the Glory of God as God appeared to him. We ordinary mortals are left to assume that what God shows us is a mere hint of the true glory that is beyond our capacity to perceive in our human limitedness.
Initially the Gospel seems to have no relationship to this account – and of course, each text is actually being proclaimed in the context of a “continuous reading” of its own book, so the two passages were not chosen in the daily lectionary to complement each other except in the broadest possible way that both speak of the “salvific plan of God.”
None-the-less there are connection points we can discover. In this Gospel account, Peter is asked by the religious leadership if Jesus (his teacher) intended to pay the temple tax. What a first century reader would know would be that the very nature of that tax is intended as something like a hotel tax today – designed to get revenue from the pilgrimage trade (the tourist trade of the day), rather than the locals who are already heavily taxed. Biblical scholars point out that between the land tax of the Romans and wrongly imposed temple tax of the High Priesthood, the ordinary people of the land had more than80% of their meager resources taken. Jesus, as a native of the land, was by Jewish law exempt from the temple tax. If we read the text through the lens of the Resurrection, we know that he is ULTIMATELY exempt from such a tax since he is what the temple merely represents, the manifestation of God’s Presence in the world. Jesus challenges their injustice and then tells Peter to catch a fish and cut it open. In its belly is a coin of the realm – most likely made of some proportion of electrum (perhaps an allusion to Ezekial’s vision). The reader is reminded by this small display of power that in Jesus is the Glory of God made present to us. God, who is the source of all creation – the fish, the metal of the coin, the Temple, life itself – became subject not only to the limitations of bring human, but to the oppression of wealthy and powerful humanity who set themselves up as “false gods” by their arrogant use of power. And he did all this in order to turn about and save oppressed and oppressors alike from sin.
So we are invited to SEE the glory of God not only in the overwhelming vision of Ezekiel, but in the vision that Peter and (and Matthew) give to us of Jesus, who is the ultimate disclosure of God for us. One of the insights that I take away is that “glory” is in the humility of truth – whether it is the truth of the ultimate display of God’s power on the thrones of heaven (yes, a form of humility because it is truth), or the power of Jesus to serve humanity by submitting to oppression to disclose the love that the All Powerful God has for us. Both images shine with brilliance when we see them rightly and both catechize us to the kind of humility that is appropriate for us: the humility of one who exercises mercy. With the psalmist we can cry out: “Heaven and earth are filled with your glory!” Ps 148.1.
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