- Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator
St. Peter, often referred to as the Chief Apostle, loomed large in the liturgical calendar of the Church before the Second Vatican Council. Down through the years, the Church had developed several feast days in honor of Simon Peter, son of Zebedee, one of the first apostles to be called by Jesus and later appointed to be the foundation for the Christian Church. On January 18, the Church used to celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter in Rome. February 22 was designated as the Feast of St. Peter in Antioch. June 29 was kept as the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. On August 1, the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Peter in Chains, a day set aside to remember the dramatic rescue of St. Peter from prison. Finally, on November 18, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul. Pope John XXIII removed the January feast day from the calendar. The subsequent revision of the calendar after the Vatican Council removed the August feast day. So today we still keep three feasts in honor of St. Peter.
By celebrating the “chair” of St. Peter, we remember the authority of the apostle whom Jesus appointed to lead the early Church. Tradition has it that St. Peter was first established as the leader of the Church in Antioch and spent seven years as its bishop. He then moved to Rome where he shepherded the flock and was eventually martyred in the persecution of the Emperor Nero around 76 A.D. The chair became the symbol of authority because it was traditional for the leader to sit while teaching and preaching to his flock. This tradition continues today as the Pope is always seated while preaching. Using a figure of speech called synechdoche, the church equates the chair of the Bishop of Rome with his authority.
The Gospel selected for today’s Feast is the familiar account from St. Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus questioning his disciples about how the Hebrew people have come to regard him. Because of the reward which he bestows upon Peter when he answers out of his faith in Jesus, we sometimes regarding Christ’s question as a “test.” However, when we remember that expectations about the Messiah were multiple, we begin to see that Jesus is simply trying to ascertain whether his mission is succeeding or not. Peter’s answer reveals that at least some people have come to see Jesus for who he really is.
St. Matthew includes two details that are missing in the other synoptic accounts. He refers to the place where this event took place, Caesarea Philippi. He also recounts that St. Peter refers to Jesus as the Christ, “the son of the living God.” Caesarea Philippi was a grotto or grove dedicated to the gods and goddesses and emperors of Rome. As such it was probably filled with images of “dead” gods. By including these two details, St. Matthew, who wrote specifically for the Jewish-Christian community, is making a statement about Jesus that would have resonated strongly with the Hebrew people. Graven images were strictly forbidden by the Sinai covenant. The nuance of the place and the answer would not have escaped the notice of St. Matthew’s audience.
As does any good liturgical feast, today’s celebration focuses our attention on Jesus and what he accomplished in his short stay on this earth. By remembering the faith of St. Peter and the authority invested in him, we once again recall that Jesus was the final revelation of God as the supreme authority of our world, a God who loves us deeply, clearly demonstrated in the redemptive suffering and death of Jesus.