Homily for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
Acts 12:1-11 - 2 Tim 4:6-8 & 16-18 - Mt 16:13-19
by Canon Dr. Daniel Meynen
The Lord and his Church
Acts 12:1, About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. 2, He killed James the brother of John with the sword; 3, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4, And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5, So Peter was kept in prison; but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. 6, The very night when Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison; 7, and behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, «Get up quickly.» And the chains fell off his hands. 8, And the angel said to him, «Dress yourself and put on your sandals.» And he did so. And he said to him, «Wrap your mantle around you and follow me.» 9, And he went out and followed him; he did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10, When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened to them of its own accord, and they went out and passed on through one street; and immediately the angel left him. 11, And Peter came to himself, and said, «Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.»
Each year, on June 29, the liturgy makes us celebrate the memory of these two Pillars of the Church: the Princes of the Apostles Peter and Paul! From time immemorial, these two Apostles are celebrated on the same day, no doubt because they died on the same day, but probably not in the same year. It is commonly thought that Saint Paul died in the year 67, and Saint Peter in an earlier year, between the years 64 and 67 of our era. But this June 29, 2008 is clothed in a particular character, since, according to historians, Saint Paul was born between the years 7 and 10 of our era, and, on this occasion, Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed a Jubilee year dedicated to Saint Paul, from June 28 2008 to June 29 2009, commemorating the two thousandth anniversary of the Apostle's birth.
Today's first reading and the gospel speak to us exclusively of the Apostle Peter. It is true that the gospel could not recount an episode from the life of Saint Paul, since he did not know the Lord during his earthly life. This, moreover, clearly differentiates the two Apostles in their respective missions. Saint Peter, who knew the Lord and who touched him corporeally (cf. 1 Jn 1:1, "That which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life"), would of course be the Apostle of all men, of any nation, but firstly of the Jews of his time, those who are corporeally of the same nation as Christ. For his part, Saint Paul, who did not know the Lord during his earthly life, as I have just said, but who was guided in an eminent manner by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 20:22: "I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit..."), this Spirit who is "another Counsellor" (Jn 14:16), similar to the first Counsellor, who is Christ, Saint Paul would thus be, par excellence, the Apostle to the Nations, the Apostle of all the men and women spiritually united to the Lord Jesus, in a single mystical Body: the Church!
The Acts of the Apostles we read today recount the persecution undergone by the first Christians in the year 42, under the reign of the cruel Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great. Passover was near ("This was during the days of Unleavened Bread." - Acts 12:3) and the Jews who had come to Jerusalem to pray are numerous. Herod tried to please these orthodox Jews by launching a persecution against the disciples of Jesus. He directly took on one of their leaders, James, the first bishop of Jerusalem: "He killed James the brother of John with the sword." (Acts 12:2) Then he had Peter arrested and imprisoned, with the intention of having him decapitated after the holy days: He intended "after the Passover to bring him out to the people." (Acts 10:4)
It would have been useless for Peter to think of escaping! He was guarded by "four squads of soldiers" (Acts 12:4). These four soldiers split up their task as follows: "At each guard duty shift, two men attached their arms to the chains of the Apostle; two others were on lookout, one in the cell itself, and the other further off, probably between the interior prison door and the iron door facing the street." (Abbé C. Fouard, "Saint Pierre", p. 237) Peter stayed in prison for several days. But on the eve of the day he was to be decapitated, having peacefully fallen asleep, he was suddenly awakened by the Angel of the Lord: Peter was freed by the Lord, who had sent his Angel!
The believers of Jerusalem and elsewhere hadn't stopped praying for the deliverance of Peter: "Earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church." (Acts 12:5) Let us too pray for Peter! Let us pray for Pope Benedict XVI! Let us pray for the entire Church!
2 Tim 4:6-8 & 16-18
2 Tim 4:6, For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. 7, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8, Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. 16, At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! 17, But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully, that all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. 18, The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Saint Paul writes his second letter to Timothy while he is imprisoned, the second time, in Rome. He would soon die: "I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come." (2 Tim 4:6) The Holy Spirit continues to guide the great Apostle to the Nations. The Lord never abandons those who put their trust in him! Saint Paul trusts his Lord and ours; he had just written to his dear Timothy: "I know whom I have believed!" (2 Tim 1:12) And he repeats it once again: "The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom." (2 Tim 4:18)
No matter what happens, the Lord Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, watches over his Church. The power of our baptism, the power of our confirmation, all the Love of the Bread that was delivered up and of the Blood poured out for our sins are, for each of the believers of the Church, who truly believe and who sincerely love the Lord, a firm and solid anchor to which each man and woman can and must attach themselves, today and yesterday, in good times and bad!
Mt 16:13, Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesare'a Philip'pi, he asked his disciples, «Who do men say that the Son of man is?» 14, And they said, «Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli'jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.» 15, He said to them, «But who do you say that I am?» 16, Simon Peter replied, «You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.» 17, And Jesus answered him, «Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18, And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. 19, I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.»
Dear reader of this homily, for another commentary on this beautiful gospel, why not read the commentary on it I wrote towards the end of the year 1994, which served as the Preamble of a book entitled: "A Stone in the Church of God : Cephas"? You can read this Preamble on my site, on the webpage of the book in question:
Let us say again together, with Peter: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!"
Along with the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, let us ask the Lord to keep us always under his almighty protection, under the gaze of the Father!