The Feast day of Saints Peter and Paul
On the 29th June of every year our Orthodox Church celebrates the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul. So important is this celebration in the Orthodox Church that it is marked by a preparatory fasting period – called the fast of the apostles – beginning from the Monday after Pentecost and lasting until the eve of the feast day of Sts Peter and Paul. Following the practise of the early Church, where the first Christians would commemorate departed saints by celebrating the Divine Eucharist on top of their tombs, we too, nearly two thousand years later follow that same tradition. We too continue to this day to celebrate the feast days of saints by celebrating the Divine Liturgy over the altar of the Church of the particular saint to which the Church is dedicated. The reason for this is that the altar of every Church is said to be symbolic of saints’ tombs in that every consecrated Church has relics of saints within the altar.
One may quite justifiably ask why these two apostles in particular are celebrated on the same day. Peter was one of the twelve whereas Paul was not. From the Biblical evidence that we have we know that Peter’s ministerial outlook was very different from Paul’s. At the council of Jerusalem (48AD), great problems had arisen in the Church from a large influx of Gentile converts and these saints had different opinions as to how they should be received. Yet we find that not only are they celebrated on the same day, but even icons of Sts Peter and Paul portray these two major apostles embracing each other.
Historically the reason why the Church combined the feast day of the two apostles into one was that they were both martyred in Rome and on the same day. There is a very ancient tradition which claims that they were both executed during Nero’s persecution approximately in the year 68AD. For this reason, probably from the fourth century onwards the Church in Rome came to celebrate the feast day of these two apostles on the 29th June where they were martyred. By contrast, Constantinople celebrated this feast day several days after Christmas on the 28th December. However we see that it was the Roman custom that has prevailed in the Church today, but the evidence does not reveal to us precisely when this came to be.
Theologically speaking, the reason why the feast day of these two apostles was combined into one was to show that even though their ministerial vision was not the same yet both were necessary and even complemented each other. Even though the apostle Paul was not one of the twelve, he would claim, nevertheless that his ministry was considered equal if not superior to those ministers who had been appointed by Christ during His earthly ministry since he had suffered so much for Christ. During their lifetime, these two great apostles of our Church disagreed greatly as to how to receive new members into the newly established Christian faith. St Paul is said to have rebuked St Peter for duplicity in this matter. In Galatians 2.11, St Paul tells us of a disagreement he had with St Peter: “when Peter came to Antioch, I withstood him in the face because he was to be blamed.”
Peter believed that new members firstly had to fulfil the requirements of the Jewish law by being circumcised before they could become Christians whereas Paul was totally opposed to this. What we can learn from this is that when the Church is ruled by the Holy Spirit tensions of this kind can be overcome.
In celebrating their feast day, let us glorify Him who glorified them and rejoice together with Sts Peter and Paul and sing:
“Rejoice o Peter the apostle, for you are the great friend of the Master, Christ our God. Rejoice well beloved Paul, preacher of the faith and doctor of the universe. Because of this, may you both intercede with Christ our God for the salvation of our souls.”
~Taken from Philip Kariatlis, Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, (Website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia: http://www.greekorthodox.org.au/general/resources/publications/articledetails.php?page=186&article_id=7).