Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The Lord Jesus lived almost all of His pilgrim life near the Sea of Galilee, which is 75 miles north of Jerusalem. From the shore of the sea, if you look further to the north, in the distance you can see the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hermon, which is in Syria. The northern boundary of the Holy Land is about 20 miles north of Galilee, at the foot of the mountain. Water from the melting snow flows out of caves there. Further south, this stream becomes the Jordan River.
Alexander the Great conquered the Holy Land three centuries before the coming of Christ. The Greeks were convinced that the foot of Mt. Hermon was a holy place. They thought that their god Pan lived in one of the caves, so they made it a temple and worshiped there. It would not be surprising if faithful Jews at the time of Christ referred to these caves as the “gates of hell,” because the pagans worshipped evil spirits in them.
When the Romans conquered the Greek Empire, they eventually partitioned the Holy Land into three territories. They gave one to each of the three sons of King Herod the Great. To his son Philip, the Romans granted the northern territory, including the caves at the foot of Mt. Hermon. Philip wanted to ingratiate himself with the Romans, so he built a city in honor of the emperor at the site. He named the city after the emperor and after himself, Ceasarea-Philippi.
Very few people practiced the Jewish religion in Philip’s kingdom; it was mainly pagan territory. There were no Pharisees there. So when the Lord Jesus led His chosen disciples up into Philip’s territory, he was taking them on a vacation, away from the tension and controversy in Galilee.
The Lord brought His disciples up to Caesarea-Philippi to help them prepare for what was to come. This vacation in the north was the decisive turning point in all of their lives. Up to this time, the Lord had been revealing His true identity little by little, with flashes of power and wisdom here and there. He had become very well-known, but no one understood Who He truly is. He was an object of curiosity to the crowds. His enemies were determined to destroy Him. His destiny was about to unfold.
So the Lord led His chosen ones up close to the ancient pagan temple at the foot of the great northern peak. It may be that Christ led Peter, James, and John up the mountain here and was transfigured before them, showing them a glimpse of His divine glory. The Transfiguration probably happened on Mt. Thabor, south of Galilee, but it may have happened on Mt. Hermon. Regardless, Christ had led His chosen disciples to a place and to a moment where they could contemplate with clear minds the truth about Who their Master truly is.
The drama was heightened by the fact that they stood at the ‘gates of hell,’ in front of the creepy cave where the pagans worshiped their demon. Here the Lord declared that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church He was founding. All the evil, confusion, malice, worldliness, and pettiness which His disciples would inevitably face was not going to overcome them. By going to His death and rising again, Christ was to bring about the victory of goodness, mercy, and truth. He was going to go down to Jerusalem and suffer and die in order to open the gates of heaven. The long, dark night of sin which the world had lived through up to that point—the night of paganism and confusion about God—that night was going to come to an end.
The city of Casarea-Philippi no longer stands. The area is inhabited by only a few villagers now, and they say that the cave where the pagans worshiped is haunted. Below the cave there is a beautiful park where the freshwater streams from the snow-capped mountaintop come gushing out and begin to form the Jordan River. The ruins of the pagan shrines are still in the cliff above, broken statues and columns. I can tell you from firsthand experience that the haunted cave is seriously creepy.
When I was there in February, the Archbishop who led our pilgrimage had us recite the Nicene Creed together there. We declared the truth about Jesus of Nazareth together at the very place where St. Peter first proclaimed our faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
If we are armed with this faith of the Catholic Church, then the gates of hell cannot withstand us. We will break them down. We will rescue souls ensnared by the devil by our works of love and our witness to the truth.