The Chair of Peter
Each year on February 22, we celebrate the feast of the Chair of Peter.The Chair of Peter refers, of course, not to any ordinary chair, but to Peter’s teaching authority as Apostle and Bishop. A bishop’s chair, his cathedra in Latin, is his seat in the cathedral.
If you were to visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you would see, inscribed around the inside of the dome, in letters three feet high, the Latin words from today’s gospel passage, “Tu es Petrus, You are Peter, Et super hanc petram, and on this rock, aedificabo ecclesiam meam, I will build my Church…” (Matthew 16:18). This feast celebrates Peter’s primacy, his place as first among the Apostles.
This feast was originally the feast of Peter and Paul, which was transferred to the 29th of June, and the celebration was then focused on Peter alone–on his unique and special role. But both Peter and Paul came to Rome (though not together), and it on this historical fact that Rome’s spiritual authority is based. It’s not certain where exactly Paul died, but we know that Peter died in Rome, and it’s almost certain that the bones buried below the high altar of his basilica are Peter’s bones.
It is the belief of most Catholics that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and therefore the first Pope. However, in Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, a very fine Catholic historian, Eamon Duffy, who teaches at Oxford University, has shown, that Peter was not the first Bishop of Rome. At the time when Peter was there, there were not many Christians in Rome. Because of this, there was no Bishop in Rome either. Many of those who were there were part of the large Jewish community living in Rome, and, because these Christian Jews were causing so much dissension in the synagogues, they were later expelled from Rome, along with many other Jews.
If we look at the known as the Roman Canon, the First Eucharistic Prayer in the Sacramentary, (which was for many centuries the only Eucharistic Prayer), we find listed, first, the Blessed Virgin Mary with Joseph her spouse, then Peter and Paul, and then the other Apostles, followed by a list of the first popes: Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, and others Roman martyrs. Peter and Paul are listed ahead of the other Apostles because, for three centuries they were revered together, Peter as the apostle to the Jews and Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles. The 22 February was their shared feast day until, in the fourth century, it was moved to the 29 June. Linus heads the list of the Bishops of Rome. Still, it isn’t possible to say with any great certainty who the first bishop of Rome actually was, and thus impossible to say who the first pope actually was. We can, however, say with certainty, that it wasn’t Peter.
All this is not to demote Peter or to downgrade his importance. Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter, to the rock (petra) on which he will build his community or church. Peter is still First among the Apostles, and Rome, as a great Christian centre, the only one in Europe, became in some way the “first among equals,” first among the other great centres: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Damascus, where Christianity flourished before it took root in Rome. Jesus begins by asking a question, “Who do people say that I am?”, and then turns the question upon the Apostles themselves: “But who do you say that I am?” It’s this question that’s addressed to each of us today. Peter answers with a title, “You are the Messiah,” and also with a deeper truth, “You are the Son of the Living God.” What Jesus wants from you is more than a title, and more than another kind of truth: what he wants is your recognition of who he is for you. You may answer, “My Lord and Saviour,” but he also wants to be your friend, your companion, your beloved.
“Jesus” is his name, but even this is not enough. Jesus wants more than a name; he wants a deeply personal relationship; he wants to be your Jesus, my Jesus. When I was a novice here many years ago, my Master of Novices, Len Fischer, who died in November 2013 at the age of 96, and is buried here in our graveyard, gave us a little preparatory prayer to say at the beginning of our meditations. It goes like this: “O my Jesus, help me to realize that I am in your presence, and that you behold me as I pray. Enlighten my mind and touch my heart, that I may know your holy will and do it gladly, for your honour and glory and for the good of my soul.”
It’s a prayer that I’ve continued to say every day, but it has changed its meaning for me over the years. In the beginning, my attention was mostly on the second sentence, “Enlighten my mind and touch my heart, so that I may know your holy will and do it gladly…” More recently I began to focus on the first sentence and spend more time absorbing it: “O my Jesus, help me to realize that I am in your presence and that you behold me as I pray.” Help me to be aware that I’m in your very presence and that you regard me with great understanding and compassion and love.
Then I moved my focus to the opening phrase, “O my Jesus,” pondering what this meant for me. What I did next was to imagine Jesus saying my own name back to me. I would say, “O my Jesus,” and imagine him saying, “O my Eric.” Was this real? No, I was only imagining it; but is it true? Yes, because I am his, and he is mine.
There are things that are real but not true, for instance, if you sometimes feel that nobody loves you, that is really how you feel at that moment. The feeling is real, but it is not true, because there are no doubt lots of people who love you. There are also some things that are both real and true, for instance, when the risen Lord appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, and said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting (Acts 9:5). That was a real experience and the words were also true.
You could turn the question around and ask Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” and try to imagine what he might say to you, just as he says to Simon, “You are Peter…” How does Jesus see your relationship with him? Does he know your name? Does he have something to say to you?
What I’d like to do now is invite you to address Jesus saying, “O my Jesus,” then pause and imagine Jesus using your name, and saying “O my Mary,” or “O my John,” or whatever your name may happen to be. So, repeat after me, “O my Jesus.” [“O my Jesus.”] Pause, and now imagine Jesus saying back to you, “O my…” Again, repeat, “O my Jesus.” [“O my Jesus.”] Pause, then imagine…
It may not be real, but it is certainly true: you are his and Jesus is yours.