This weekend the Church celebrates the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. It is always a Solemnity, but this year it happens to fall on a Sunday and it has obvious precedence over a Sunday in Ordinary Time. Because of the importance of the Solemnity, the Lectionary offers a set of readings for the Mass of anticipation (Saturday) as a vigil and for the Mass on Sunday as the day of the Feast.
For the attentive reader of the Gospels and Acts, Peter and Paul, Simon and Saul, struggled for a long time before understanding the implications of what Jesus had lived and taught. Like it happened during Easter, the first reading on Sunday from Acts gives us a lot to understand and reflect, if we are able to capture the deep meaning of the text–Peter’s liberation from a jail. The original intended reader, a first century Jew, would not have missed the abundant references to the night of Passover, when the people of Israel were guided out of the slavery of Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land: It happens at night, an angel guides Peter and his companions, it is about a liberation…
Not much different from the life-long wandering of these two great saints we celebrate today. Peter needed a “conversion within the conversion,” and this escape from jail is an analogy of the time he finally experiences it in the form of a personal liberation. After this event, Peter is freed from whatever kept him tied down to the old Simon. The same thing happens to Saul, who after becoming Paul upon encountering the voice of Jesus on the road to Damascus, also has to struggle mightily to really understand and live out what Jesus was asking him to become. It took them—great Saints, pillars of the Church—a whole life.
The gospel of the Vigil Mass—in which the Risen Jesus asks three times to Simon (notice the use of Simon, his old name) if he loves him. Jesus asks three times, one for each of the times Peter denied him before the Passion—is a good example of Peter’s struggle, and an explanation about why, at the end of the gospel, Jesus tells him again, as in the first time, “Follow me.” In Sunday’s gospel, the disciples’ answers to the question, “Who do people say that I am,” also show that Peter was not the only one struggling—Jesus was not who the disciples thought he was.
There is simple lesson on this feast for us: we believe, but we struggle. We fail, make mistakes, we sin. Jesus is not who he should be in our lives. But, like Peter and Paul, we should live trying to respond to the call to holiness. There is the hope that we will accomplish it, the way they did. Like them, we have to untie ourselves from the bounds that keep us from being authentically free—to become the new men and women we are called to be. Some of these bounds are obvious—attachment to material things, selfishness, fears of all kinds. Some are less obvious but they also tie us down very hard. We, like these two great Saints, also need an experience of liberation, of being freed of everything that keeps us from living freely.
When we overcome the fear that keeps us from that personal liberation, we may experience what Paul did, when he wrote what we hear in the 2nd reading of the Sunday Mass: “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”