A Feast for East and West


by Fr. Patrick Reardon

Saints Peter and Paul: Both the East and the West, from the earliest centuries, have celebrated this double feast day of those two apostles, who are linked in a special way by their both being martyred in the city of Rome. Even though there seem to have been Roman Christians right from the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:10), the origins of that local church were always associated with the two great men who there shed their blood for the name of Christ. Writing to the Christians at Rome in the year 107, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in Syria, could say to them: "I do not give you commands, as did Peter and Paul." With respect to the ministry and martyrdom of Peter and Paul at Rome, the evidence from the dawn of Christian history is overwhelming, nor was there any dissenting voice on this matter from any source in ancient history.

With respect to Paul, of course, we have the Book of Acts and the Second Epistle to Timothy. With respect to Peter, we are not entirely sure when he did reach Rome, but it must have been in the early 60s. If he were at Rome in the late 50s, it is impossible to understand why he was not mentioned among that long list of Christians who are named in Romans 16.

However, we do know quite a bit about the place, time, and circumstances of Peter's death. The fourth century historian, Eusebius, cites testimonies from the second and early third centuries to bolster his thesis that the chief of the Apostles was crucified in Rome during Nero's persecution (mid-60s): Tertullian in North Africa, Gaius of Rome, Dennis of Corinth. From another writer of about 200, Clement of Alexandria, we learn that Peter's wife was also martyred and that the apostle was a witness to it. The African Tertullian speaks even more boldly of that crucifixion at Rome, "where Peter equals the Lord's passion," he treats the information as though it were common knowledge.

Indeed, the early Christians seem to have been so familiar with the circumstances of Peter's martyrdom that Clement of Rome (writing from that city) and Ignatius of Antioch (writing to that city) had not felt the need to elaborate on the place and circumstances. The story of the Apostle's crucifixion was so widely reported among the churches that the Gospel of John, probably written at Ephesus, could simply refer to the stretching out of Peter's hands as "signifying by what death he was to glorify God" (John 21:18f). John did not have to explain the point; everyone knew exactly how Peter had died. That this Johannine passage ("thou shalt stretch forth thy hands . . . signifying by what death he was to glorify God") did in fact refer to Peter's crucifixion in Rome was perfectly obvious to Tertullian. Citing that Johannine verse, he wrote: "Then was Peter 'bound by another,' when he was fastened to the cross" (Scorpiace 15.3). Moreover, the symbolic extension of the hands as signifying crucifixion is attested to in early Christian and even pagan writings (Pseudo-Barnabas, Justin Martyr Irenaeus, Cyprian of Carthage, Epictetus).

The Christians at Rome, however, have never clung to this special two-fold grace in any jealous or exclusive fashion. Throughout the years they have shared this feast day of the two apostles with all other Christians, and this feast day is observed with equal solemnity throughout the Christian East. Indeed, in recent years it has become customary for Rome and Constantinople to exchange special delegations and greetings on this day, with the intention of maintaining those cordial relationships of charity that may, in God's time and by God's grace, bring the Christians of the East and the West back to full communion one with another.