The 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
First Reading: 1st Book of Samuel 3:3-10, 19
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 40:2, 4, 7-10
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 6:13-15, 17-20
Gospel: According to St. John 1:35-42
It is fairly obvious than when it is suggested that we read the Gospels it is not for the humor. Unlike so many of us who, when we speak publicly we open with some sort of humor (often self-effacing), Jesus doesn’t go there. The first thing out of His mouth in John’s Gospel, and addressed to Andrew and John, is: “What are you looking for?” Could there be any more serious question ever asked? The Incarnate Logos of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, asks the question that has been at the core of every human heart since the beginning of time, and then the first word out of the future-apostles’ mouths is: “Rabbi (Teacher).”
The Rabbi whom they sought will deliver the answer to their, and our, question by His public ministry, His private moments with His Apostles, and ultimately His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. All very serious business, yet in these early moments of John’s Gospel Jesus gives us a rare glimpse of His lightheartedness and His wonderfully wry sense of humor.
Now I understand that Jesus wasn’t all about one-liners nor did He gather great crowds around Him in order to perform His stand-up routine, yet He does seem to enjoy a good word-play. To my mind this is not out of character because, after all, God gave us the ability to enjoy a bit of humor, and even the Psalmist in the often dour Old Testament proclaims “The One enthroned in heaven laughs.”
So at the end of this weekend’s Gospel reading when Jesus, upon first meeting Simon, gives him the new name of Cephas, He must have had a sly and mirthful grin on His face.
One could be purely theological and note that the words of Jesus in the meeting with Simon are meant to show that he who was “son of John” has become, in this encounter, a new man and so in need of a new name. There is certainly precedent in the Old Testament: Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and Jacob becomes Israel. In addition, the act of naming shows the relationship between the namer and the named. Parents name their children, founders name their companies, and families name their dogs.
Yet, looking beyond the purely theological understanding of Simon as now belonging to Jesus we see a dual meaning in this choice of Cephas as the new name. Just as various word-plays depend on the existence of homophones for their humor, so to with the naming of Simon as Cephas (the Aramaic word for the Greek Petros or Rock).
When I tell my students the corny, yet classic, line “A man walked into a bar – ouch!” they may groan, but they get the fact that the joke –such as it is – relies on the audience knowing that a bar is both a pub as well as a rod.
For Jesus to rename Simon as Cephas is to prophetically bestow him with his future title as the Vicar of Christ, the Rock upon which His Church would be built. Yet there must also have been at least a hint of the hard-headedness of Simon, his inability to be quick on the uptake, and his tendency to act impulsively without first considering the consequences.
Because of His infinite love for Simon there would have been absolutely nothing insulting or uncharitable in this new name, but it could certainly be imagined that Jesus would have been pleased at the double meaning of Cephas.
Plus, as the archetypal Catholic – both great sinner and great saint – Simon represents each of us. When he loses faith and can no longer walk on water with Jesus, when he cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s slave, when he is in the courtyard denying Jesus three times, when he asks the Risen Jesus to forgive him, when he is arrested and humbly asks to be hung on an upside-down cross. In these instances and in many more Simon is each of us, only bigger.
All this can be of great solace to the modern follower of Jesus – Simon was both The Rock as well as a Rockhead, just like us. Which prompts another thought. When we meet Jesus face to face for the first time, what name might He give to us, and will we notice a hint of a smile on His face?