Most of the apostles and lots of saints have their own feast day, but how about the two most famous saints of the early church? There is February 22nd in which the Church celebrates the “Chair of Peter” the sign that Peter was the first among the apostles and the one designated to lead the early Church after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension. But there is no “Feast of St. Peter.”
St. Paul, although not one of the Twelve, was an Apostle commissioned by Jesus. There is the January 25th celebration of “The Conversion of St. Paul” which commemorates the Damascus Road episode described in Acts of the Apostles: 9:1-31, 22:1-22, and 26:9-24. It is the scene made famous by the “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” painting by Caravaggio. But there is no “Feast of St. Paul.”
The two leading saints of the early Church are celebrated together in the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul as they are the founders of the See of Rome, through their preaching, ministry and martyrdom there. This celebration is a liturgical feast in honor of the martyrdom in Rome of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul and is observed on June 29th – without declaring that to be the day of their deaths. St. Augustine of Hippo (late 4th century) says in his Sermon 295: “One day is assigned for the celebration of the martyrdom of the two apostles. But those two were one. Although their martyrdom occurred on different days, they were one.” Thus it is clear that the celebration is of ancient origin.
Clearly from the earliest days, the Church has recognized them jointly. As St. Augustine continued in his Sermon, “And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”
Matthew 16:13-2013 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”20 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.
Context. A large part of the Matthean narrative is devoted, in part, to the three-part question: (a) who is Jesus, (b) what does it mean to be his disciples in the light of his identity, and (c) what choices will you make because of his call. We have seen these questions addressed in the pericope (fancy word for story) of Peter walking upon the waters (Mt 14:22-33) and the encounter with the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) – and both episodes move Jesus to comment upon the faith of the disciple. These stories serve as the immediate context for our gospel about Peter’s confession and what it will mean for him in his on-going role of discipleship.
Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah forms the climax to the long section of the Gospel which began in 4:17 with Jesus’ public teaching in Galilee. Along the way the questions of Jesus’ identity has repeatedly arisen. Matthew has been clear from the beginning about Jesus’ identity – he is the one in whom God’s salvific purposes are fulfilled. From the beginning, Matthew has recorded the clear declarations of Jesus’ identity by God (3:17) and by the demons (8:29). But there is no record of any explicit declaration by Jesus of his role as Messiah (though of course much of the recorded teaching points unmistakably in that direction). Mainly we have only the testimony of the people who witness his miracles and signs: frequent amazement of the crowd at his authority in word and deed (4:24–25; 7:28–29; 9:8, 26, 31, 33; 13:54; 15:31). This amazement has led to speculation if he is the son of David (12:23; the title is also offered to him by petitioner in 9:27; 15:22), which no doubt gave rise to the authorities’ repeated demand for a sign to authenticate his supposed claims (12:28; 16:1). The messianic identity is heightened when John the Baptist pointed forward to a ‘coming one’ (3:11–12) and has tentatively identified Jesus in this ‘Messianic’ role (11:2–6); all the while Herod confused Jesus’ ministry with that of John the Baptist (14:1–2).
People want certainty about Jesus and who he is before they commit to be his disciples. But even after all that Jesus has said and done, there is always one more sign that is requested (16:1-5) – and eventually the answer is “No.” The time for signs is over. It is time to decide.
Saints Peter and Paul – each in their own unique way – made the choice, decided for Christ, and set out on mission to make the Good News known to the world. 2,000 years later we remember and honor them.