Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Liturgical Notes on the Feast of St Peter’s Chains

The Latin name of today’s feast in the Tridentine Missal and Breviary is “Sancti Petri ad Vincula”, which is translated literally as “the feast of St Peter at the chains”, not “the feast of St Peter’s chains” or “of St Peter in chains.” This title is found in the oldest liturgical books which attest to it, and even earlier, in the list of the station churches given by the lectionary of Wurzburg, from the mid-seventh century. (Stations are kept there on the Mondays of the first week of Lent and the Pentecost octave.)
The beginning of the calendar for August in the Echternach Sacramentary. (895 A.D.; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9433) “On the Kalends of August, (the feast of) St Peter at the chains, and the birth of the seven Machabee brothers with their mother.”
Like many specifically Roman feasts, it began as the dedication feast of a basilica, which in this case is located on the Esquiline hill, within sight of the Colosseum. When a city has more than one church dedicated to the same Saint, they are often distinguished from each other by nicknames; the appellation “at the chains” would therefore serve to distinguish it from the Vatican basilica. Its great antiquity is demonstrated by the fact that it was restored by Pope Sixtus III in the 430s; an inscription which records the restoration mentions that the building was already considered old, and that the Pope re-dedicated it to both Apostolic founders of the See of Rome.

The breviary refers very obliquely to a tradition stated more explicitly in the Golden Legend and elsewhere, namely, that the Romans dedicated the month of August to honoring the Emperor Augustus’ memory, and that this second feast of St Peter was created to supplant this holiday. It is true that the Latin names for the seventh and eighth months of the year were originally “Quintilis” and “Sextilis”, and that the Emperor Augustus renamed the former for his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, and the latter for himself. However, it is not likely that the cult of “the divine Augustus” was so vibrant in the mid-5th century as to require serious opposition from the Church. There are 32 days between June 29th, St Peter’s principal feast day, and August 1st; this perhaps suggests the tradition that Peter was bishop of Antioch for seven years, and bishop of Rome for twenty-five, a total of 32 as the visible head of the Church, one less than the 33 years of Our Lord’s earthly life.

The breviary lessons for the feast day also give the traditional story of the church’s famous relic. When the Empress Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius II, went to Jerusalem in the year 438, she received as a gift the chain by which St Peter was held in prison under King Herod, as narrated in the Epistle of the feast day, Acts 12, 1-11. She then sent it to her daughter Eudoxia in Rome, who in turn presented it to the Pope. When it was exposed for the veneration of the faithful together with the chain by which Peter had been held during his imprisonment in Rome under the Emperor Nero, the two chains were miraculously united, so as to appear to be a single chain.
Photo by Agnese Bazzuchi, from our 2014 Lenten stations series.
In the year 1706, the painter Giovanni Battista Parodi decorated the basilica’s ceiling with a fresco of a famous miracle attributed to the chains, which is also recounted in the breviary. A count of the Holy Roman Empire was possessed by an evil spirit which caused him to bite himself; when he accompanied the Emperor Otto II to Rome in 969, Pope John XIII placed the chain around his neck, at which the demon was expelled.
Image from Wikipedia by Maros Mraz (click to enlarge.)
Many other miracles have been attributed to the numerous fragments of the chain that were shaved off and given by the Popes as gifts, a practice to which Pope St Gregory refers several times in his letters. A medieval sermon on the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, incorrectly attributed to St Augustine and also read in the Roman Breviary, speaks of this when it says, “if the shadow of (Peter’s) body could then bring help (Acts 5, 15), how much more now the fullness of power? … Rightly is that iron of the chains of punishment considered to be more precious than gold throughout the churches of Christ.”

A feast of St Peter’s Chains, (or “chain” in the singular) is also kept in the Byzantine Rite, on January 16. Its very first chant at Vespers refers to the miraculous healing of both body and soul. “Thou didst bind the deceit (of the devil) when thou wert bound in the Lord, and closed up in prison, o Apostle; therefore with love we honor thee, and with faith we embrace thy chain, drawing from it the strengthening of the body, and salvation of the soul. We praise thee, as our duty, who beheld God, and are like unto the Angels.”

Two other chants of the same day refer to a portion of the chains which was given to the church of Constantinople, and kept in Hagia Sophia itself, as noted in the Synaxarion, the Byzantine equivalent of the Martyrology. The apolytikion (dismissal hymn) of Vespers says “Without leaving Rome, thou didst come to us by the precious chains which thou didst bear, o first-enthroned of the Apostles, which we venerate in faith, and pray, that by thy intercessions before God, He may grant us great mercy.” Likewise, in the Canon of Matins, we read “Thou sanctifiest Rome by the burial of thy holy body, Peter, and by faith enlightenest the New Rome, that keeps thy honorable chain.” And: “The Apostle Peter came forth from Palestine as the bearer of Christ, and having proclaimed him to the world in older Rome, fell asleep, but gave to the New Rome his chain to venerate.”

Despite the antiquity and universality of the feast, it was removed from the calendar in the Breviary reform of 1960. It is hard not to see this as a function of a very modern embarrassment at the very idea of miracles and relics, since the same reform also suppressed the Finding of the Cross, St John at the Latin Gate, the Apparition of St Michael, the Finding of St Stephen’s Body, and St Francis’ Stigmata. It is true that we do not have a chain of custody from St Peter’s time to our own to prove the authenticity of the relics. On the other hand, we should shudder at the implication that so many of our ancestors in the faith were stupidly gullible at best, or liars at worst. Bl. John Henry Newman wrote about this in the Apologia pro Vita Sua; in a note in the appendix “on Ecclesiastical Miracles,” he points out that both Testaments have stories of miracles effected by relics. A corpse is brought to life when it touches the bones of Elisha (4 Kings 13, 21), “and God wrought by the hand of Paul more than common miracles, so that even there were brought from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs and cloths, and the diseases departed from them, and the wicked spirits went out of them.” (Acts 19, 11-12.)

In addition to the relic and the basilica’s dedication, today’s feast also commemorates the Biblical event of St Peter’s release from prison. The importance of this episode is indicated by the fact that the church of Rome chose the relevant passage from the Acts of the Apostles for the text of both the Introit and Epistle, not only for today, but also for June 29th.
When the Apostle was held in prison in Jerusalem, and in danger of being killed by the monarch, he was freed by a direct act of divine intervention. Twenty-five years later, when he was held in prison in Rome, and in danger of being killed by the monarch, he was freed by human intervention, that of his jailers, Ss Processus and Martinian. The Christians of Rome then urged him to leave the city, for fear that he be captured once again, and executed. As he started down the Appian Way, the road leading to the port of Brindisi, where he could find a boat to bring him back to the East, Peter encountered Christ just outside the gates of the city. “And when he saw him, he said, ‘Lord, whither goest thou thus? And the Lord said unto him, ‘I go into Rome to be crucified. And Peter said unto him, ‘Lord, art thou being crucified again?’ He said unto him, ‘Yea, Peter, I am being crucified again.’ And Peter came to himself, and having beheld the Lord ascending up into heaven, he returned to Rome, rejoicing, and glorifying the Lord, for that he said, ‘I am being crucified”, which was about to befall Peter.” (from the apocryphal Acts of Peter.)

This episode, which otherwise would seem to have no connection to the feast, is cited in an antiphon for the Office of St Peter ‘ad vincula’ which was very widely used, although not at Rome itself. “Beatus Petrus Apostolus vidit sibi Christum occurrere; adorans eum et dixit: Domine, quo vadis? Venio Romam iterum crucifigi. – The blessed Apostle Peter saw Christ coming to meet him. Adoring Him, he said, ‘Lord, where art thou going?’ ‘I come to Rome to be crucified again.’ ”

We therefore see in today’s feast that St Peter was freed from prison in Jerusalem because his mission was not finished. He was destined to go to Rome, so that he might preach to all nations, “so that the light of truth, which was revealed for the salvation of all nations, might spread itself more effectively through the whole world from its head.” (Pope St Leo I, first sermon of the feast of Ss Peter and Paul.) The Lord Himself sent him back to the eternal city, choosing it as the place to establish the headship of His Church upon the earth, “the first throne”, as stated above in the Byzantine Office of the feast.
Quo vadis, Domine?, by Annibale Carracci, 1601-2

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