Introduction – the Institution of the Apostles’ Fast
The feast of the holy, glorious and all-praised leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul was instituted by Pope Sixtus II, Bishop of Rome (commemorated on August 10) on June 29, 258.[i] It is observed in memory of the fact that the Apostles fasted before they went out to preach.[ii]
St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco notes that just as the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is the foreword to the Gospel and the beginning of the events described in it, so also the death of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul is the culmination and the afterword of the Gospel.[iii] Hence this feast is one of the bookends to the life of Christ.
The Purpose of the Fasts and Feasts
As we live our life within the cycle of the fasts and feasts of the Church, this “cycle” contributes to the healing of our soul and body. In the case of the Apostles’ Fast, St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461, commemorated on Feb. 18) explains that it has been ordained due to the possible sins that aroused from our neglect and inattention following the celebratory feasts of Pascha and Pentecost. Hence, “in order that what was on this day Divinely bestowed on the Church may abide in us” and not be choked out by the presence of our sins.[iv] Therefore, we prepare ourselves for this holy day by fasting.
Introduction to the Lives of the Eminent Apostles
We recall that “the purpose of the [written] Lives of the Saints is not to give abstract knowledge but… to edify spiritually and to inspire imitation.”[v] This is why St. Justin [Popovich] says: “If you wish, the Lives of the Saints are a sort of Orthodox Encyclopedia. In them can be found everything which is necessary for the soul which hungers and thirsts for eternal righteousness and eternal truth in this life, and which hungers and thirsts for Divine immortality and eternal life.”[vi] And it is especially true, when we arrive at our feast today and celebrate these All-glorious Leaders of the Apostles.
Comparing Sts. Peter and Paul to all the saints who have followed after them, St. Gregory Palamas says,
They are the fathers and guides of all Christians: apostles, martyrs, holy ascetics, priests, hierarchs, pastors and teachers. As chief shepherds and master builders of our common godliness and virtue, they tend and teach us all, like lights in the world, holding forth the word of life.[vii]
St. Peter – Matthew 16:13-19
What do we learn from the Apostle Peter in today’s Gospel reading? That Jesus Christ is God, the second person of the Holy Trinity.
We have here Christ asking the question to his disciples, “Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am?” The disciples respond saying that some of the people believe Him to be John the Baptist, some Elijah and others Jeremiah or one of the Prophets.” He then asks them directly saying, “But who do you say that I am?” and it is Peter who responds saying: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
In the following verses, Christ affirms what Peter has said by saying and doing things that can only be done by God. Commenting on this passage, St. John Chrysostom sees this demonstrated in three ways.
The first instance is not so obvious but if we recall Matt. 11:27 in which Christ says, “No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him.” Therefore, Christ follows Peter’s statement saying, “My Father which is in heaven hath revealed this to you.” What He is saying is, “I know the Father and what He does and that is why I know that He revealed this to you,” thus showing His relationship to the Father as His Only Begotten Son.
Secondly, Christ affirms His own divinity again by telling the Apostle, “I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of heaven,” and in so saying we see that this ability comes not from the Father or some other power but by the power of Christ.
Finally, Christ gives to the Apostles a power which is peculiar to God alone saying, “whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” What man ever had such power that he could affect things in heaven? None, only Christ and those to whom He gave it.
Therefore, let us note, that it is the Apostle Peter who has first declared who Christ is and so clearly. Clearly enough that Christ affirms it and then reveals three ways which show it to be so as described above.
St. Paul – 2 Cor. 11:21 – 12:9
We next turn to today’s Epistle reading in which we learn from the life of the Apostle Paul what the Christian life consists of.
In describing the life of the Apostle Paul, St. Gregory Palamas says, “what tongue – or how many and what sort of tongues – can depict even to a limited extent his endurance unto death for Christ’s sake?”[viii]
Today’s Epistle can be divided into three parts:
In the first part, the Apostle speaks of all that he has suffered for the sake of the Gospel: being whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, stranded, in dangers in the city and the country, he was tired, hungry, naked and sleepless.
In the second part, the Apostle speaks of the visions and revelations he was given when taken up into the third heaven.
In the final part we see that he was given a “thorn in the flesh”, a very particular burden, in order that he would not exalt himself.
In all of these verses we recognize the immense struggle but also the contentment and inherent joy that the Apostle has. To all of these, he says, “I will only glory of the things which concern my infirmities.”
As St. John Chrysostom further said about this eminent Apostle:
Thus, amid the traps set for him by his enemies, with exultant heart he turned their every attack into a victory for himself; constantly beaten, abused and cursed, he boasted of it as though he were celebrating a triumphal procession and taking trophies home, and offered thanks to God for it all: “Thanks be to God who is always victorious in us!” This is why he was far more eager for the shameful abuse that his zeal in preaching brought upon him than we are for the most pleasing honors, more eager for death than we are for life, for poverty than we are for wealth; he yearned for toil far more than others yearn for rest after toil.[ix]
We can see this also in what was sung last night at the Stichera at the Praises of Matins, which speak of the Apostle Paul saying “…Wherefore, thou didst call thyself a prisoner of Christ, who desired the burden of perils as something sweeter than any food…”
Reading further, we understand why the Apostle is saying these things. When he describes this “thorn in the flesh”, he prays to have it removed and then hears from God, “My grace is sufficient for you,” and he then repeats in a way which almost seems to resound, that he will glory only in his infirmities and now tells us why: “[so] that the power of Christ” may rest upon me “because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.” What does he mean by “our weakness”? He means that when we humble ourselves, when we admit our weakness and need of God for all things, then we will see the grace of God that is God’s strength made perfect. Just as St. Peter also says, God gives grace to the humble (1Peter 5:5).
St. Isaac the Syrian, addressing the reason we need to be humble and rely on God and not ourselves says, “keep your mind lowly, and place no confidence in your strength, lest you be given over to the frailty of your nature, and then, from your own fall you will learn your own weakness.”[x]
St. Silouan, takes it a step further and not only describes our human frailty but also speaks of afflictions added to it and the benefit they bring saying, “The Lord loves mankind but He sends affliction that we may perceive our weakness and humble ourselves, and for this humility receive the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit all things are good, all things are joyful, all things are well… [He] who humbles himself will be content with every kind of fate, since the Lord is his riches and his joy…”[xi]
This is the teaching and the experience of the whole Church extending up to our own day; that we humble ourselves, seeing our inability before our Creator, the Lover of Mankind. This humility draws us to repentance. To repent for our sins before God who loved us so much that He sent His only begotten Son for us. But even though someone is sick, perhaps even chronically, it does not mean that he is in a state of humility but only if he is moved to repentance.
As repentance flows from a humble heart so do both of these preserve the Spirit of God within a man. As St. Silouan prayerfully said, “’Thou, O Lord, shewest me Thy glory because Thou lovest Thy creature, but do Thou give me tears and the power to thank Thee. To Thee belongeth glory in heaven and on earth, but as for me – I must weep for my sins.’ There is no other way of preserving the grace of the Holy Spirit which the Lord in His mercy gives freely… Such is the way of the Lord.”[xii]
Therefore, may Christ, Who is the Son of the living God; Who has given the keys of the kingdom to the Apostles and from them to the leaders of the Church throughout time; Who gave the power to loose and to bind to the Apostles and their successors; Christ, Our True God, open our eyes so that we may see our sinfulness and that we may humble ourselves before Him, in order that we would truly speak the words of the Apostles Peter and Paul when we say: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.”[xiii] Amen.
[i] Veniamin, Christopher, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: the Homilies (Essex: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014), footnote #417.
[ii] Sokolof, Archpriest D. A Manual of the Orthodox Church’s Divine Services (Jordanville: Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev, 2001), 95.
[iii] St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, “The Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul” in The Orthodox Word (May-June, 1980): 126.
[iv] See Sermon LXXVIII and Sermon LXXXII in “The Letters and Sermons of Leo the Great Bishop of Rome”, trans. Rev. Charles Lett Feltoe in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999) 12:193-195.
[v] St. Gregory of Tours, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, trans. Fr. Seraphim (Rose) (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988), 31.
[vi] Father Justin Popovich, “Introduction to the Lives of the Saints” in Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, trans. Asterios Gerostergios (Belmont: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1997), 47-48
[vii] Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, 221.
[viii] Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, 224.
[ix] From a Roman Catholic website with excerpts from St. John Chrysostom’s work on St. Paul,https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/440/In_Praise_of_St._Paul__John_Chrysostom.html, accessed on 7/9/2015.
[x] St. Isaac the Syrian. The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984), 43.
[xi] Ibid., 305.
[xii] Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 299.
[xiii] From the prayers before communion, Jordanville Prayer Book
Yesterday, Christ was born; today, He is baptized. Yesterday, God immersed Himself in our flesh; today, our flesh is immersed in the Most Holy Trinity. Yesterday, the Timeless Son of the Virgin-Father was begotten in time of the Virgin-Mother; today He gives birth to us as sons of God forever.