Sunday, June 29, 2014

Peter and Paul

                                    Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Apostles

Feed My Sheep
Assumption Church window
Fairfield CT

It takes a great feast day for the Church to interrupt the regular Sunday celebrations of Ordinary time. Today, June 29, is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul and that certainly qualifies. You wonder why the Church does not have a separate feast day for each of these important saints. Perhaps it’s because their lives are so intertwined in Scripture and Tradition.

Although their backgrounds were different, they both had remarkable conversion experiences. For the most part the Acts of the Apostles is all about the work of Peter and Paul. They are both powerful and effective preachers, they both work healing miracles, and they both have miraculous escapes from their enemies. Yet, they each insist that it was only by invoking the “name of Jesus” that they were able to accomplish anything. They took no credit to themselves. Tradition tells us that they both suffered martyrdom in 64 A.D. during the persecution of Christians by the brutal and insane Roman emperor, Nero.

However, I think that the reason for today’s feastday is not necessarily the greatness of these two saints but their weakness.  Both were failures who had to seek redemption before they could follow in the Lord’s footsteps. Rather than trying to hide the story of Peter’s denial that he even knew Jesus, the Church broadcasts this dark moment in the life of the first Pope. The denial of Peter is one of the few incidents recorded in all four gospels. Moreover, artists have never tired of depicting Peter’s denial. In Caravaggio’s version, after someone claims that Peter was a follower of the recently arrested Jesus, Peter points to himself as if to say, “who me?”

In the same way, no attempt has ever been made to hide the fact that St. Paul persecuted members of the early Church. Before his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul considered himself the greatest of sinners. In Raphael’s depiction of St. Cecilia discarding her musical instruments after that she has discovered the music of heaven, the saint is flanked by St. Paul and Mary Magdalen, both symbols of saints who had triumphed over sin. Paul leans on the sword that usually identifies him in sacred art but it is not an ordinary sword. In one of his letters Paul referred to the word of God as the sword of the Spirit.

There is a church at the northern entrance of the city of Rome right next to the famous Paizza del Populo. It is called Santa Maria del Populo and it contains two of the greatest works of the artist Caravaggio. In the small Cerasi chapel Caravaggio has depicted the Martyrdom of Peter on one wall, and just a few feet away on the opposite wall the Conversion of Paul.

In S. Maria del Populo the two saints can be seen together again just as on this feastday. Peter is depicted head down on a cross as he is about to suffer the same fate as Jesus. In the gospel of the vigil mass we have tha account of the appearance of our Lord to Peter after the Resurrection. As if to remind us that Peter had denied him three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Each time when Peter affirms his love, Jesus deflects it and tells him to feed his sheep. In other words, to direct his love to those entrusted to his care. The image at the top of this post depicts the Risen Lord handing the shepherd’s staff to Peter.

Caravaggio depicted Peter at the end of his journey but Paul is depicted at the beginning. He is shown fallen on the ground with his arms outstretched toward the light that is blinding him. Paul hints at the end of his story in today’s in today’s reading from the letter to Timothy. 

I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation,
And the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well, I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.

Today, their message still goes out to all the earth.


Reading 1. Acts 12:1-11
Reading II. 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 17-18
Gospel. Matthew 16: 13-19 (thou art Peter).\

Reading 1Act 3: 1-10
Reading II: Galatians I: 11-20.
Gospel: John 21: 15-19 (Feed My sheep)

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