Thursday, July 05, 2018

The Legend of Simon Magus

Until the year 1881 *, July 5th was celebrated on the general celendar of the Roman Rite as a day within the very ancient octave of Ss Peter and Paul. The breviary lessons for the second nocturn are taken from a sermon of St Maximus of Turin, a Church Father of the late 4th and early 5th, of whom very little is known. This sermon recounts a famous legend concerning the death of the Apostles as follows.

The Fall of Simon Magus, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461-62
“On this day, then, the blessed Apostles shed their blood; but let us look to the cause for which they suffered, namely, that among other miracles, they also by their prayers brought down the famous magician Simon in a headlong fall from the empty air. For when this Simon said that he was Christ, and claimed that as the Son he could ascend to the Father by flying, and, having been lifted up by his magical arts, had at once begun to fly; then Peter knelt down and prayed the Lord, and by his holy prayer, overcome the magician’s flight. For his prayer ascended to the Lord before the flight did, and his just petition came there before (Simon’s) wicked presumption did; Peter, being set upon the earth, obtained what he asked for before Simon could come to the heavens whither he was headed. Then did Peter set him down like a prisoner from the lofty heights, and dashing him down with a steep fall onto a stone, broke his legs; and this, as a reproach of what he had done, so that he who had just tried to fly could suddenly no longer walk, and he that had taken on wings lost the use of his feet.” (Sermo 72 de natali Ss Apostolorum Petri et Pauli)

Church Fathers even earlier than St Maximus, such as St Justin Martyr and Arnobius, knew of the tradition that Simon Magus, who sought to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from St Peter (Acts 8), was in Rome at the same time as the Eternal City’s founding Apostles. The apocryphal Acts of St Peter tell the story that Simon sought to win the Emperor Nero to his teachings, which he would prove to be true by flying off a tower built in the Forum specifically for this purpose. As he was lifted up into the air by the agency of demons, Peter and Paul knelt on the street and prayed to God, whereon Simon was dropped, and soon after died of his injuries.

In the unintentionally hilarious 1954 historical epic The Silver Chalice, Simon Magus is played by the great Jack Palance, wearing what is perhaps the very worst super-hero costume ever made. (Palance, by the way, was born Volodymyr Palahniuk, to a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic father and Polish mother, in Pennsylvania mining country. This movie saw the debut of another world-famous actor, Paul Newman, whose performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination; despite this, Newman himself once called it “the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s.”)

The legend goes on to say that the enraged Nero arrested Peter and Paul and threw them into the Mamertine prison before their execution. There they converted the two wardens, Processus and Martinian, in whose acts it is told that St Peter caused a well to spring up from the ground so that he could baptize them. The site has been venerated as the place of the Apostles’ imprisonment for many centuries, and pilgrims can still visit it to this day; a plaque near the door lists the famous Roman prisoners, such as King Jugurtha of Numidia, who were killed there, the Saints who suffered and died within its walls, and the later Saints who have come to venerate the site.

On the opposite end of the Via Sacra, the principal street of the Roman Forum, Pope St Paul I (757-67) built an oratory dedicated to Peter and Paul, nicknamed ‘ubi cecidit magus – where the magician fell.’ This oratory contained as its principal relic the stone upon which St Peter knelt to pray for the defeat of Simon Magus and the vindication of the Christian faith. It was later demolished, but the stone itself is preserved in the nearby church of Santa Maria Nuova.

Photo by JP Sonnen. The Italian inscription above says “On these rocks St Peter set his knees when the demons carried Simon Magus through the air.”
* In October of 1880, Pope Leo XIII added the feast of Ss Cyril and Methodius to the general calendar, and assigned their feast to July 5th. The day within the octave of the Apostles was chosen to express the hope for the reunion of the Orthodox Slavs, originally evangelized by Cyril and Methodius, with the See of Peter; this is also stated in the proper hymns of their Office, which were composed by the Pope himself. Their feast was celebrated on this day from 1881 to 1899. At the end of 1899, the feast of St Anthony Maria Zaccaria, founder of the Clerks Regular of St Paul (also known as the Barnabites, from the titular Saint of their mother church in Milan) was extended to the universal calendar, and placed on July 5th, the day of his death in 1539; Ss Cyril and Methodius were then moved to the 7th. In the post-Conciliar calendar, they were moved again, to the day of Cyril’s death, February 14th.

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