“With what crowns of glory shall we crown Peter and Paul, separated in the body, but united in the spirit…?” “With what delightful songs of praise shall we extol Peter and Paul, those two wings of divine knowledge flying in the four quarters of the earth and ascending unto heaven, those two hands of the gospel of grace, those two feet of the preaching of the truth, those two rivers of wisdom, those two horns of the cross through which Christ, possessing great mercy, demolished the haughtiness of devils?” “With what spiritual praises do we hail Peter and Paul, the undulled edges of the drawn sword of the Spirit… the bright adornment of Rome… the God-inscribed tablets of the New Testament?” With these praising questions begin the vespers of the vigil of the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul.
June 29, the commemoration of the martyrdom of the two chief apostles, is the only feast of apostles still observed as a public holy day.
Saint Peter’s original name was Simon. Christ gave him the name Cephas or Peter (the Rock) to show both his rank as a leader of the apostles and his role as supreme head of the Church in its visible aspect. The future apostle was born in Bethsaida, his brother Andrew and the Apostle Philip coming from the same town. Simon settled in Capharnaum, Christ’s chosen city, and his house was the scene of several miracles. After the miraculous draught of fishes on the Sea of Galilee, Peter left his family and became one of Christ’s permanent disciples. He was the spokesman of the apostolic college (Jn. 6:68; Mt. 16:16, 19:27; Lk. 12:41) and was specially favored by our Lord. Christ frequently makes special reference to Peter (Mt 26:40, Lk. 22:31) and after his ßresurrection charged him to feed His flock (Jn. 21:15-17). This meant that Peter was to rule Christ’s Church – to be, without any limitation, its visible head.
The supremacy of Peter is proved by the various distinctions conferred upon him by our Lord. To him alone He promised that he should be the fisher of men (Lk 5:10). It was Peter that He caused the tribute to be paid (Mt. 17:26). Peter was first whose feet were washed at the Last Supper (Jn. 13:6). Our Lord appeared in a special way to Peter after His resurrection (Lk. 24:34). He also fortold to Peter that he would die a martyr’s death (Jn. 21:19).
After the Ascension, Peter exercised the office of chief shepherd of Christ’s flock. He delivered the first sermon on Pentecost and received the first gentiles into the Church. From Jerusalem he went to preach the Gospel in Asia at Antioch (Gal. 2:11), then to Cappadocia, Galatia, Pontus and finally Rome. It is a well established historical fact that St. Peter labored in Rome, that he was the city’s first bishop and that he died there as a martyr. Tradition adds that he was crucified, head down, most probably in 67 A.D.
St. Paul, known as Saul before his conversion, was born at Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia. As a youth, he went to Jerusalem to receive his education from the celebrated Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). At the time of Jesus’ ministry he had already left Jerusalem. He did not see the Lord during His earthly life. By the grace of God, he was miraculously converted on the way to Damascus around the year 34 A.D. After receiving baptism, Paul left for a long retreat in Arabia to prepare himself for his future mission. The following period of 12 years, between 45 and 57 A.D., was the most fruitful of his life. During this time, he made three great missionary journeys.
On the first journey, 45 – 48 A.D., as recoded in Acts 13: 1-14, he brought the Gospel to Cyprus and Asia Minor, namely to Pamphylia, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.
During the second journey 51 – 54 A.D., as found in Acts 15:36 – 18:22, he revisited Asia Minor, then crossing over to Europe, he founded churches at Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth. He remained almost two years in Corinth, establishing there a flourishing Christian community. In 54 A.D. he returned to Jerusalem.
Paul’s third missionary journey, 54 – 57 A.D., Act 18:21-23:26, took him to Ephesus where he stayed almost three years. After visiting the European communities, he returned again to Jerusalem. During this third mission, he wrote four great Epistles. Falsely accused by the Jews in Jerusalem, he was held a prisoner for two years in Caesarea. As a Roman citizen, he appealed to Caesar and was sent by sea to Rome. Upon his arrival at Rome “Paul was given permission to live by himself with a soldier to guard him” (Acts 28:30). After his release, he devoted his last years to missionary excursions, probably visiting Spain. In 66 A.D. he returned to Rome, was arrested and beheaded a year later.
St. Paul left a total of fourteen Epistles which are used very frequently in the liturgy.
The feasts of Saints Peter and Paul came to be observed soon after their death. The Christians were mindful of the admonition of St. Paul: “Remember your superiors, who spoke to you the word of God” (Heb. 13:7). Since 258 A.D., the feast has been kept in Rome on June 29, a day on which a solemn service was held. These special activities, as observed in Rome are described by Prudentius. According to him, the whole city was in motion. The faithful visited the tombs of the apostles and in the two churches erected in their honor, pontifical mass was celebrated. As early as the fourth century, the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul was celebrated in the same day. We must add, however, that there is no suitable evidence to show that they even died in the same year, let alone on the same day. Many of the Fathers of the Church held the opinion that though both apostles may have died on the same day of the month, they did so in different years. Although it is by no means certain that they did indeed die on the same day, their feast has always been kept in this manner.
The Fathers and writers of the fourth century attest that in the middle of that century a church was erected in Constantinople and that the feast of the apostles was kept on the same day throughout the Christian East. St. Gregory the Theologian in one of his sermons mentions that “the apostle-saints, Peter and Paul, are venerated with great honors and feasts.” In the sixth century the feast was observed very solemnly in Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491-518 A.D.).
Although in most churches the feast was kept on June 29, it is not unusual to find communities which celebrated the feast of the chief of the apostles around Christmas, suggesting that their death, like Stephen’s was a birthday to a new and better life. In an Arian martyrology, for example, the feast is appointed for December 28, right after the feast of St. Stephen appears on the second Friday after Epiphany. In Cappadocia, or at least in Nysssa, we find the Christmas season considered a suitable time for a collective feast of the Apostles Peter, James, John and Paul, following the feast of St. Stephen. In Antioch also there is no indication that Saint Peter and St. Paul were honored together on June 29. St. John Chrysostom, while having seven sermons in honor of the apostle Paul, has only one “on Peter and the prophet Elias” in which St. Peter is only briefly mentioned.
The Byzantine liturgy hails the chief apostle with beautifully composed hymns and sticheras. At. Andrew of Crete and St. John Damascene especially have composed many hymns in their honor which are still used today. Peter is called “the rock of faith” and Paul, “pride of the universe.” Together they are quoted as “luminaries of those in darkness, two rays of the sun, pillars of divine doctrines and friends of Christ” (stichera of matins).
The Byzantine rite prepares for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul with a fast of variable duration, beginning one week after Pentecost.
Next Feast Days
|June 24||Nativity of St. John the Baptist|
|June 29||Feasts of Saints Peter and Paul|
|July 20||Feast of the Prophet Elias|
|August 6||Transfiguration of our Lord|