The Lord is the king of apostles; come, let us adore him.
Year: A(II). Psalm week: 1. Liturgical Colour: Red.
“I do so love St Peter,” says a friend of mine. “Whenever he opens his mouth, he puts his foot in it”.
She is right, of course. Whatever else St Peter may be, he is not the model of a wise and noble hero. He walks on the water – but then panics and starts to sink. He makes the first profession of faith – and moments later blunders into error and is called Satan by the Lord. He refuses to be washed, and then, when the purpose is explained to him, demands to be washed all over. And, of course, he betrays his master soon after having been warned that he will and having sworn not to. If Peter is the rock on which the Church is built, what a fissured and friable rock it is! How much better, we think, to have chosen the Sons of Thunder, for their energy; or Judas Iscariot, for his financial acumen; or John, because he was loved the best.
The choosing of Peter teaches us a lesson. The Church’s foundation-stone and its first leader is not all-wise, all-knowing, good, heroic, and beautiful. He is a very ordinary man who makes about as many mistakes as we would in his place, and kicks himself for them just as thoroughly afterwards. If St Peter had been a hero, we could easily have despaired of ever becoming like him. If St Peter had been great, and noble, and good, we could have told ourselves that the Church is for the saints, despaired, sat down, and not bothered. But the Church is not just for saints: it is for confused, impetuous, cowardly people like us – or St Peter. The rock crumbles, the ropes are frayed, the wood is rotten – but, although that improbable building, the Church, is made of such inferior materials, it grows (on the whole) faster than it collapses, and it is grace that holds it together.
In the end, it was grace that gave the coward the courage to bear witness when it counted, grace that gave the fool the wisdom he needed to set the infant Church on her way, grace that taught the impetuous man patience and forbearance.
We none of us admire ourselves, however much we would like to; let us not try to admire St Peter either, but admire instead the grace he was given, and pray that, weak as we are, we may be given it too, and may use it.
St Paul is not an attractive figure today. We are still knee deep in the overripe fruit of late romanticism: we admire men who feel, not think; who enchant people into following them, not argue them into submission.
There is even, nowadays, a fashion for saying that Paul invented Christianity as we know it, that he set out with the cynical aim of fashioning an enduring institution; and that the real Christianity, the Christianity of Christ, is something quite different from and far nicer than the Christianity we know.
Yes, Paul’s mind did shape the early Church. Yes, without him things would have been different. And all the information that we have in the New Testament is entirely consistent with the whole thing being a Pauline conspiracy.
But so what? “Consistent with” is a treacherous phrase. The evidence of my eyes is entirely consistent with there being an invisible lion in my fireplace, because you can’t see invisible lions; but I still don’t believe there is one. I trust the world, I have faith in it, and invisible lions are not part of that faith. I trust God, I have faith in the Holy Spirit – I say so out loud on Sundays – and I believe that God called Saul because he needed him, and that the renamed Saul did and said what needed to be said and done.
Paul is not some cold and remote intellectual – just read the Epistles, and see if that stands up. Paul is always reminding people of his weakness – look, I know what I ought to do, and I keep on doing the opposite – look, I have this thorn in my flesh and God absolutely refuses to take it away. Paul is not all mind – he does have his troubles too.
But yes, Paul does have a mind, and that raises problems in an age that doesn’t, that uses “clever” as a term of abuse. Remember, though, that we are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. Perhaps we cannot love St Paul very much nowadays; but let us at least pray for the grace to love God with our minds, as he did.
In other years: St Irenaeus (130 - 202)
Irenaeus was born in Smyrna, in Asia Minor (now Izmir in Turkey) and emigrated to Lyons, in France, where he eventually became the bishop. It is not known for certain whether he was martyred or died a natural death.
Whenever we take up a Bible we touch Irenaeus’s work, for he played a decisive role in fixing the canon of the New Testament. It is easy for people nowadays to think of Scripture – and the New Testament in particular – as the basis of the Church, but harder to remember that it was the Church itself that had to agree, early on, about what was scriptural and what was not.
Before Irenaeus, there was vague general agreement on what scripture was, but a system based on this kind of common consent was too weak. As people meditated on the intolerable event of the Redemption, dissensions and heresies inevitably arose, and reference to scripture was the obvious way of trying to settle what the truth really was. But in the absence of an agreed canon of scripture it was all too easy to attack one’s opponent’s arguments by saying that his texts were corrupt or unscriptural; and easy, too, to do a little fine-tuning of texts on one’s own behalf.
So Irenaeus went through all the books of the New Testament, and all the candidates (such as the magical pseudo-Gospels, and the entertaining and uplifting novel The Shepherd of Hermas). He did not simply accept or reject each book, because his enemies could have said that he was doing it to bolster his own arguments: he gave reasons for and against the canonicity of each. Irenaeus’s canon of scripture is very nearly the modern one (he does not quote from three of the short universal epistles), but more important is the fact that he started the tradition of biblical scholarship.
Irenaeus had to fight against the Gnostics, who believed that the world was irredeemably wicked, and against the Valentinians, who claimed to be possessors of a secret tradition that had never been written down but passed from master to disciple through the ages. This pessimism and this arcane élitism remain with us even today, and each generation must renew the fight against them. Let us pray for the inspiration of St Irenaeus in our battle.
About the author of the Second Reading in today's Office of Readings:
Second Reading: St Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430)
Augustine was born in Thagaste in Africa of a Berber family. He was brought up a Christian but left the Church early and spent a great deal of time seriously seeking the truth, first in the Manichaean heresy, which he abandoned on seeing how nonsensical it was, and then in Neoplatonism, until at length, through the prayers of his mother and the teaching of St Ambrose of Milan, he was converted back to Christianity and baptized in 387, shortly before his mother’s death.
Augustine had a brilliant legal and academic career, but after his conversion he returned home to Africa and led an ascetic life. He was elected Bishop of Hippo and spent 34 years looking after his flock, teaching them, strengthening them in the faith and protecting them strenuously against the errors of the time. He wrote an enormous amount and left a permanent mark on both philosophy and theology. His Confessions, as dazzling in style as they are deep in content, are a landmark of world literature. The Second Readings in the Office of Readings contain extracts from many of his sermons and commentaries and also from the Confessions.
Liturgical colour: red
Red is the colour of fire and of blood. Liturgically, it is used to celebrate the fire of the Holy Spirit (for instance, at Pentecost) and the blood of the martyrs.
|Mid-morning reading (Terce)||Acts 15:7-9 ©|
God chose that the pagans should learn the Good News from me and so become believers. In fact God, who can read everyone’s heart, showed his approval of them by giving the Holy Spirit to them just as he had to us. God made no distinction between them and us, since he purified their hearts by faith.
|Noon reading (Sext)||Galatians 1:15-16,17-18 ©|
God, who had specially chosen me while I was still in my mother’s womb, called me through his grace and chose to reveal his Son in me, so that I might preach the Good News about him to the pagans. I went off to Arabia at once and later went straight back from there to Damascus. Three years later I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas.
|Afternoon reading (None)||2 Corinthians 4:13-14 ©|
We have the same spirit of faith that is mentioned in scripture – I believed, and therefore I spoke – we too believe and therefore we too speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus to life will raise us with Jesus in our turn, and put us by his side and you with us.