This feast, celebrated from even before the time of St Maroun, was one of the great feasts of the Eastern Church. It is still, liturgically, a Holy Day of Obligation, but the feast is customarily moved to the closest Sunday, and the original fast is only now being revived in our Maronite Church, so we cannot be blamed for undervaluing it. Let us see if we can remedy this situation with a little prayerful study.
It is a feast which, it seems to me, stands for three great ideas:
- The apostolic mission of the Church to all the world (Jew and Gentile).
- Harmony between co-workers for the truth.
We are called to faithfully and fearlessly witness to the truth, and so to triumph over death.
It should, then, be a day of rejoicing and gladness in the spread of the Gospel, and our vocations as Christians, to join in this great project, each day, in even the smallest ways, wherever we are – spreading hope where there is bleakness, purpose where there is meaninglessness, and the three virtues of faith, hope and charity where there has been materialism, despair and selfishness.
First, some background. The feast was celebrated in the East from at least the fourth century, but it was originally observed on 28 December near the feasts of other Apostles, and of St Stephen. It is significant that while the sons of Zebedee were remembered on that same day, Peter was not placed with his brother Andrew, but with Paul. At some point the feast was moved to 29 June, for some Churches, but not all! The Church of the East celebrates the feast on 5 January (https://www.stzaiacathedral.org.au/events-fests/) which might, I guess, represent something close to 28 December in the new Gregorian calendar. Now let us consider the meaning of this day.
1. The Apostolic Mission
We do not have any document which tells us what those who instituted this feast had in mind. But, considering this part of the calendar, it seems that this was a week to recall the major figures in the spreading of the faith. For this reason, it seems to me most probable that Saints Peter and Paul were jointly honoured because they were the chief apostles, and in particular, they are known as the apostles to the Jews and the Gentiles.
This way of referring to them is a simplification: St Peter also preached to Gentiles (as the famous episode concerning Cornelius tells us), and St Paul also preached to Jews (hence his adventures at synagogues). But the fact is that the tradition, including the Synaxar written by Fr Chehwan, describes them that way.
So, by feting the two apostles to each division of the people of the world, we recall the proclamation to all the world.
2. Harmony between Co-Workers
This idea of harmony between two saints who were known to have had fireworks (St Paul’s account of his criticism of St Peter, in the letter to the Galatians), but who both perished some time between 64 and 68, in the persecution, was important in Rome. They were co-workers in life, and colleagues in death. This is the side which Peter Brown builds up (The Cult of the Saints, 97), saying that it was a feast of “concord” in a city which was potentially deeply divided.
By the way, despite the carping of cynics, the evidence for their having been martyred during the reign of Nero (emperor from 54-68) is very strong and very ancient (Martin Hengel, Saint Peter, 98-99).
3. Faithful Witness to the Truth
As is well known, the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for a “witness”. Even before their joint feast, they had separate feasts for their tombs (i.e for their martyrdom). Those feasts later declined in importance, the feast of St Peter’s “chair” (originally his grave), lasted until Vatican II, and survives even now in the Maronite Church and in the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass (the Tridentine Rite). For the details, see Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, 346.
By the time, Fr Archdale King wrote his two volume work on The Rites of Eastern Christendom in 1948, the period of fast and abstinence before the feast of Saints Peter and Paul had been reduced to four days, from the 25th to the 28th inclusive (vol. I, 257). This year, the Patriarch has reinstated the fast for the period from 16 to 28 June. But whichever fast is kept, there is neither compulsory fast nor abstinence on Saturday and Sunday. It would be good to try and keep the fast if one can: fasting develops will-power, is a way of doing penance for our sins, and through mortification of the flesh helps us to control all bodily appetites. If one cannot cut down one’s food while still getting quite enough, and avoid, meat, dairy and sweets, what will-power and self-control can one possibly have?
The most ancient evidence comes from the Armenian lectionary cycle, which is believed to reflect the situation in Jerusalem in the fourth-century, when the Holy City led the world in the development of the liturgy. According to this, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul was celebrated on 28 December. On the next day, the feast of Saints James and John was celebrated. Now, according to a reconstructed version of the Cappadocian cycle (which is probably a little bit later than the Armenian), the feast of Saints Peter and Paul was, again, 28 December, but James and John were on 27 December. Unfortunately, Bradshaw and Johnson, who give us these details, tell us only that the Cappadocian lectionary cycle was recently put together using, among other sources, the Syriac lectionary of 411, a book which is almost impossible to obtain, so I cannot check it. (see Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity, 191-193).
In Christ, Fr Yuhanna Azize