Does anyone here have a birthday on or near Christmas? Do you feel like you somehow lose out, having to share your day with Someone else? That’s what I first thought of with today’s feast day: the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. After all, here are two of the giants of the early Church – of all time – and we mash them together as if there was not enough room in our calendar for them. By the way, we celebrate them individually as well: the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25; the Chair of Peter on February 22; and the dedication of each of their Roman basilicas in November. However, today, we get them both. But there’s a good reason – and evangelical reason. Peter and Paul share many things in common. I am going to outline three of them for you.
First, both men had big mouths.
Peter was famous for his big mouth. In fact, his mouth was much bigger than his brain most of the time, as he often spoke without thinking. This got him into trouble a lot – he wanted to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, at the Transfiguration; he told Jesus that He should go to Jerusalem to die; and he said he’d follow Christ to the Cross, but chickened out when questioned in the courtyard. However, today Peter gets it right. He recognizes Jesus for Who He really is: the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus blesses him for this profession of faith.
Paul also had a big mouth. As a Pharisee, he knew his religion inside and out, and he spoke about it with anyone who would listen (and even with those who wouldn’t). It was Paul’s skill as a “big mouth” that God used as he travelled the world preaching the Gospel after his conversion. You couldn’t shut Paul up!
Second, both men had their names (and lives) changed by Jesus.
Peter began life as Simon – Simon the fisherman; Simon, brother of Andrew; Simon, son of Jonah. However, through his relationship with Jesus – a real, personal relationship with Jesus – Simon would become “Peter,” from the Greek petros, meaning “rock.” Jesus recognizes in Simon’s confession of faith the solid rock on which His Church could be built. This relationship with Jesus is what taught Peter Who this Man was, and that he could place all his trust in Him.
Paul began his life as Saul – Saul, the Pharisee; Saul, the perfect Jew; Saul, the one who “breathed murderous threats against the disciples.” Then, after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul was transformed. He became the greatest advocate for the faith and for a relationship with Jesus Christ. From then on, he was Paul – not because of some ancient typo (there are no typos in Scripture!). This is no accident. Whenever there is a name change in Scripture it denotes a new mission, a new vocation – as Abram became Abraham, and Sarai became Sarah. Paul was new.
Lastly, both men gave their lives for their faith in Christ.
Peter travelled from Jerusalem to Antioch, and ultimately to Rome – probably out of the boldness of his faith and personality, to convert the Empire. There, he became the head of the church in Rome as their bishop (this is why the pope, the Successor to Peter, is the Bishop of Rome). However, in the year 64A.D., when a severe persecution arose, Peter reverted to his old ways. He got scared, legend says, and as he was high-tailing it out of the city, on the road, he met Jesus, carrying His Cross and entering Rome. “Lord, where are you going,” Peter asked. “I am going to Rome to suffer and die with My Church (because you won’t.” (Talk about a guilt trip!) Peter was justly convicted, and he returned to the city, where he was arrested, and put to death in the Circus of Nero, along side of a hill still called the Vatican.
After his death, the Christians took his body and laid it in a grave on the nearby Vatican Hill. Christians would bring lamps from home and lay them on the grave, and they would retrieve them the next morning. These were mementos, or relics, for their homes, recalling the witness of Peter and in hope for his intercession.
Interestingly, in the 1950s, archaeologists were excavating the necropolis (ancient graveyard) below St. Peter’s. They found ancient graffiti that read, “Peter, pray for me” and “Peter is here.” They found also a box of bones without a head or feet. Peter’s head would be in St. Paul’s basilica with Paul’s (we like breaking our saints’ bodies up, don’t we?). As for the feet, the easiest way to remove a person crucified upside-down, as Peter was said to be, was to cut them off at the ankles so the body would fall off. If one climbed directly up from that grave, they’d hit the altar of the ancient basilica of St. Peter’s, and then higher to the current altar. Literally, that church was built on the “rock” of Peter, as Christ said!
Paul was a Roman citizen, and would therefore not be subject to crucifixion; but he was beheaded, outside the city of Rome, in the year 67A.D. Ancient tradition held that the two were martyred on the same day, but historians doubt that.
So, three things shared in common: big mouths, name changes, and martyrdom in Rome. But the sharing of this feast day is more than those coincidences. Rather, we celebrate the faith of these two – a faith that we share today. We are called to have “big mouths” – to be bold in sharing our faith. We must speak about Jesus to others, not just acting. We too are called to witness like Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior, the Son of the living God, and then to live our lives according to that. We are to be transformed by that real personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus changes lives, and we must experience this change in our own lives. Finally, we are also to be consumed by Christ; consumed by this faith so that share it with everyone. While we may not be called to die for our faith like Peter and Paul, we are certainly called to live for it!