by Father Mike Stubbs
Originally, the cornerstone of a building determined the position of the structure.
Since the cornerstone was the first stone laid in the foundation, all the other stones were set in reference to it. Eventually, the cornerstone acquired symbolic importance as well. The date of construction would be inscribed upon it, as well as other pertinent information. Sometimes a time capsule would even be included.
The Christian faith rests upon the person of Jesus Christ, upon his teachings and life. Since Jesus Christ serves as the foundation of our faith, it makes sense to apply the image of a cornerstone to him. That is how we will hear him described in Sunday’s second reading, 1 Pt 2:4-9.
Since the early followers of Jesus were devout Jews, it was natural for them to interpret the events of his life, death and resurrection in light of the Bible. They found certain passages in the Scriptures, which they believed anticipated what had happened to Jesus. Among these stands out a lapidary verse from the Psalms: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Ps 118:22).
This verse seemed to point to Jesus’ rejection by the religious leadership — which led to his death — as well as the vindication of Jesus by God — which was revealed in his resurrection. Since this verse focused upon Jesus’ death and resurrection — the high point of Jesus’ life — it received a great deal of attention among the early Christians. That is why it appeared several times in the New Testament.
In the synoptic gospels, when Jesus tells the parable of the tenants, Ps 118:22 immediately follows ( see Mt 21:42; Mk 12:10; Lk 20:17). Later, when Peter addresses the Sanhedrin, he quotes this same psalm verse. He specifically equates the builders mentioned in the psalm with the leaders of the people who put Jesus to death. Finally, we hear the same quotation in this Sunday’s second reading, from the First Letter of Peter.
Sunday’s second reading goes far beyond merely quoting Ps 118:22. In a sense, the First Letter of Peter builds upon the verse as if it were a verbal cornerstone. The first sentence of the passage echoes the verse: “a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God.” The original word “stone” found in the psalm is qualified as “living stone.”
The rejection originally mentioned in the psalm as coming from the builders is expanded in the Fist Letter of Peter to result from all human beings. Furthermore, the letter specifies the destiny of becoming the cornerstone as coming from God: “chosen and precious in the sight of God.”
A cornerstone does not stand alone, but sets the course for other stones, to form them into a building. Sunday’s second reading calls Jesus Christ the cornerstone, who sets us, as living stones, into position: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”
As the cornerstone, Jesus Christ is necessary. But we also are necessary components for that construction, if it is to reach completion.