Feast of St. Peter’s Chains
The Holy Church, today, celebrates a special feast in commemoration of the great benefit which God bestowed upon His people by miraculously delivering St. Peter, the visible head of the church, from prison. The entire event is described in the Acts of the Apostles, by St. Luke. Herod Agrippa, a son of Aristobulus, favored by the Roman Emperor Claudius, ruled over Judaea, with the title of king. To give more stability to his reign, he endeavored to make himself beloved by the Jews, for which there was no easier way than to persecute the Christians, especially those who fearlessly proclaimed the Gospel of Christ, as did the holy Apostles. He had, therefore, apprehended, and soon after beheaded, James the Great, brother of St. John, which bloody deed gave the Jews great satisfaction. To increase this, Herod commanded them to seize St. Peter, intending to make away with him in the same manner. His command was executed; Peter was taken prisoner, chained and locked in a narrow dungeon, which was guarded so vigilantly, that he could not escape. It was then near the Easter Festival, after which St. Peter was to be beheaded. The Christians, in deep distress, were praying day and night, that the Almighty would not permit His flock to be so soon deprived of its shepherd.
There was no human power to save him; but God, hearing the prayer of His people, delivered him by a miracle. On the eve of the day on which he was to be executed, God sent an Angel to set him free. Although heavily laden with chains, the holy Apostle slept peacefully, guarded by the soldiers. The Angel, who by his brightness, illumined the dungeon, struck him on the side and awakened him, saying: “Arise quickly. Gird thyself; put on thy sandals and cloak and follow me.” The Apostle, whose chains had fallen from his hands, and who thought it all a dream, obeyed and followed the Angel. They passed the first and second watches without attracting their attention, and reached the iron gate which led into the street. The gate opened without the aid of human hands. After having conducted St. Peter through one street, the Angel vanished and was seen no more. Not until then did the holy Apostle realize that his deliverance was not a dream but a reality. Hence he began to praise the Almighty, exclaiming: “Now I know truly that the Lord has sent his Angel and delivered me out of the hands of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of Judaea.” He proceeded immediately to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where the faithful were assembled in prayer.
When he knocked at the door, a servant, named Rhode, came, and asked who was there. Judging by the voice that it was Peter, she was so greatly startled with joy and astonishment, that, without opening the door, she ran back to announce the news. They all believed that she was insane, but as she reiterated her words, some said that it must be his guardian Angel. Meanwhile, the Saint repeated his knocking at the door. They opened it and perceived, with amazement, their beloved shepherd safe and free from chains. Their joy on beholding him was as great as had been their grief when he was taken prisoner. Having given the sign for silence, St. Peter related all that had happened to him. They all gave thanks to Divine Providence when he had ended, and learned to trust in future to the heavenly power and mercy.
Among the sermons of St. Chrysostom, there is one in which he asserts, that the chains by which St. Peter had been bound to the ground, came into the possession of the Christians soon after his deliverance, and were held by them in great honor. Eudoxia, wife of the emperor Theodosius the Younger, received them as a present from the patriarch Juvenal, when on a visit to the holy places, and sent one of them to the Church at Constantinople. The other she gave to her daughter Eudoxia, who married the Emperor Valentinian III. Eudoxia showed the chain to Pope Sixtus III., who, on his part, showed her the one with which St. Peter had been bound, before the Emperor Nero sentenced him to die. No sooner had the two chains been held together, than they suddenly united as if they had been but one chain and forged by the same hand. This miracle increased the veneration in which these chains were held, and actuated Eudoxia to build a special church at Rome for their keeping, where they can still be seen. Many sick were healed by their touch and many possessed were delivered; among the latter was a Count of the court of the Emperor Otho, who, in the year 969, was sent to Rome to be freed from the Evil Spirit. Pope John XIII. had hardly touched the count’s neck with the holy chains, when he was relieved and his torments were ended.
St. Gregory the Great, writes that it was considered a great happiness to possess a few particles filed off from these chains, and that many persons devoutly wore them enclosed in golden crosses and lockets around their necks. Experience has shown that the touch of these crosses or lockets has restored health to many a sick person. A nobleman, who scoffed at this, and, in derision, dared to break one of these crosses, was severely chastised. He was instantly possessed by the Evil One and became so enraged that he took his own life, as St. Gregory relates. St. Augustine states that the iron of these precious chains is justly esteemed far above gold. Blessed are those fetters which touched the apostle and made him a martyr. “The touch of the blessed limbs of St. Peter has sanctified the instruments of torture.” In another place the same Saint says: “If the shadow of St. Peter possessed a healing virtue, how much greater power must the chains of his sufferings have derived from him.”
St. Peter was innocent, yet persecuted, imprisoned, chained and sentenced to die, which shows that God allows His most faithful servants and best friends to be unjustly persecuted. St. Peter was not much disturbed at his imprisonment, but placing his trust in God, he peacefully slept in his chains. May this instruct you how to conduct yourself under trials. A good conscience and submission to the Divine Will were the means by which St. Peter’s sleep, even in a dungeon, was not disturbed. Submit also, under all circumstances, to the Divine Will; endeavor to keep your conscience clear; and your mind will, at all times, be cheerful and quiet. As no human assistance was left to St. Peter and he was to be executed the next day, God delivered him by a miracle. Such is frequently the way of the Almighty with us. He waits until danger has reached its height, and we must despair of human help; then He suddenly manifests His power and His mercy. Hence, never give way to despondency in grief or sorrow, but trust in God. “If it has reached its height, hope most; for it is then that God shows most clearly His might,” says St. Chrysostom.
Prayer from the Liturgical Year, 1909
Put thy feet into the fetters of Wisdom, and thy neck into her chains, said the Holy Spirit under the ancient alliance; . . . and be not grieved with her bands. . . . For in the latter end thou shalt find rest in her, and she shall be turned to thy joy. Then shall her fetters be a strong defense for thee . . . and her bands are a healthful binding. Thou shalt put her on as a robe of glory (Eccli. vi. 25-32). Incarnate Wisdom, applying the prophecy to thee, O Prince of Apostles, declared that in testimony of thy love the day would come when thou shouldst suffer constraint and bondage. The trial, O Peter, was a convincing one for Eternal Wisdom, who proportions her requirements to the measure of her own love. But thou, too, didst find her faithful; in the days of the formidable combat, wherein she wished to show her power in thy weakness, she did not leave thee in bands; in her arms thou didst sleep so calm a sleep in Herod’s prison; and, going down with thee into the pit of Nero, she faithfully kept thee company up to the hour when, subjecting the persecutors to the persecuted, she placed the sceptre in thy hands, and on thy brow the triple crown.
From the throne where thou reignest with the Man-God in heaven, as thou didst follow Him on earth in trials and anguish, loosen our bands which, alas! are not glorious ones such as thine: break these fetters of sin which bind us to Satan, these ties of all the passions which prevent us from soaring towards God. The world, more than ever enslaved in the infatuation of its false liberties which make it forget the only true freedom, has more need now of enfranchisement than in the times of pagan Caesars: be once more its deliverer, now that thou art more powerful than ever. May Rome especially, now fallen the lower because precipitated from a greater height, learn again the emancipating power which lurks in thy chains; they have become a rallying standard for her faithful children in these latter trials. Make good the word once uttered by her poets, that “encircled with these chains she will ever be free.”
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.