The Embrace of Peter and Paul

This is a lectionary reflection on this week’s Gospel lesson, Mt. 16:13-20, the story of Jesus giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, but once again I want to get at it through an icon. One of the popular icons in contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy is the icon of the Embrace of Saints Peter and Paul. Putting these two apostles together goes back in church history as far as we can go. They are unique among the apostles in that they are commemorated together rather than individually. Their Feast is June 29, which is the culmination of the Apostles Fast, beginning immediately after Pentecost. That fast and feast is ancient, but this icon featuring an embrace is a recent development, first showing up in Crete in the 15th century.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has always seen Peter and Paul as inseparable. Peter was the Apostle to the Jews while Paul was the Apostle to the Greeks. Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, the congregation that first accepted Paul as a Christian and then sent him out as a missionary. Many years later the Paul travelled to Rome and essentially gave that congregation apostolic approval. Shortly after, Peter became Rome’s bishop.

The Western church was initially (and has always remained) very Greek in its sensibilities, and this was Paul’s gift to the church – reframing a Jewish sect so that it made sense to the world of Greek culture. (This is the meaning of the phrase, “They were first called Christians in Antioch.” Prior to this the church was simply considered the Way of Jesus. It was essentially a sect of Judaism. That Greek word “Christian” marks the beginning of this reframing of Jesus’ teachings into another culture.)

It is ironic that the Roman Catholic Church is often called the church of St. Peter because Peter never did manage to embrace this reframing of Christianity that Paul oversaw and Rome represented. That was a Pauline thing. Peter was and is far more representative of the church along the Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem, Antioch to the north, Crete to the west and Alexandria to the south). These were and are churches that maintained a strongly Semitic outlook, and that was Peter’s thing.

But Peter is first among the apostles, it was to Peter that Jesus gave authority (Mt., 16:13-20). As the power of the Roman bishop grew and as Rome grew increasingly alienated from the rest of the church, it was politically necessary that Rome cement its connection with Peter even though their soul was far more Pauline.

It had been coming for centuries but the official break of the Roman bishop from the larger church occurred in 1054. Historically there was an inevitability to the break, especially after the imperial capital was moved from Rome to Constantinople. But no one was happy that the Roman Bishop had fallen out of fellowship with the Bishops (by this time called Patriarchs) of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople.

In the 1438 the fall of the imperial city of Constantinople was still in the future (that happened in 1453), but the demise of the Eastern Roman Empire was already obvious. There was an opportunity for rapprochement between east and west and this was addressed at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-39. The reconciliation failed, but out of that effort grew an idealized memory of the past.

Much of the Byzantine court (particularly, worship specialists, as well as the art, music, and documents) had been moved from Constantinople to Crete in order to save it from the inevitable sack of the city. It was in Crete (Constantinople in exile) during the period of the council that an iconographer named Angelos first painted the Embrace of Peter and Paul. It is almost certainly historically inaccurate, but it expressed the hopes of the future as well as the rosy memories of the past for much of the church in the 15th century.

In one sense this story has nothing to do with us because that moment, the possibility of reunion envisioned by Ferrara-Florence is no longer feasible without unimaginable changes. But this icon from this period has much to do with Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, if we but choose to see it. Matthew 16:13-20 is a touchstone of deep division, given that this text has been co-opted (in the Protestant and Orthodox view) by the Catholics to bolster their vison of a universal pope to rule them all.

The icon has an odd feature that makes it quite precisely our story. Peter and Paul may be embracing, but they’re not looking at each other, they are looking past each other. (I personally have a hard time seeing this, but both art experts and icon experts have commented on this, so I’m taking their word for it.) One wonders if Angelos, while expressing his hope for union in the embrace, didn’t also express his expectation of failure in his depiction of the eyes. While the embrace almost certainly never happened, the not seeing eye to eye certainly did. Peter and Paul never did fully reconcile and James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, finally separated them, sending Paul to evangelize out west and (from the silence of scripture, I assume) allowing Peter to stay put in the Jerusalem to Antioch corridor on the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Looking back over history, I would argue that one of the strengths of the church is that east and west has never seen eye to eye. Those terrible Judaizers that ran around Asia Minor and Greece were almost certainly the everyday Christians of the eastern Mediterranean coast. That Judaizing debate was the disagreement between Peter and Paul writ large. Paul thought the central issue was works (and this is the side of the story that is recorded in Paul’s letters). The Eastern Christians thought the issue was how we go about incorporating the Gospel into our everyday lives (more reflective of James and the Petrine letters). When Peter and Paul (East and West) were in the same room they fought and misconstrued each other, but when given a degree of separation they tended to bring a balance to each other in the first millennium before the great split in 1054. That was the wisdom of James, the Bishop of Jerusalem and the effect of that first Jerusalem council.

Now there are three siblings (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) who can’t get along. Like Peter and Paul, even in their embrace, we’ll probably never see eye to eye, but we should at least be embracing each other. Behind our embrace is the profound wisdom of James who understood that the Gospel is simply too big for any one of us to grasp the whole thing.

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