In remembrance of the Holy Apostles and their mission to preach the Gospel to all nations, Orthodox Christians observe the Apostles’ Fast which begins on the second Monday after Pentecost. The Apostles’ Fast has been observed since the early Christian period and is one of the four major fasting periods on the ecclesiastical calendar. We read about a post-Pentecost fast in the writings of Saints Athanasius and Ambrose and also in the Apostolic Constitutions from the fourth century. Pentecost is a moveable feast so the start date varies. The fast originally lasted one week but was later given the end date of June 29th, the Feast day of Saints Peter and Paul. Thus the fast is also known as the Fast of Saints Peter and Paul.
In iconography, Peter and Paul are often portrayed together, for they are the two great pillars of the Church. In one icon the two embrace, symbolizing both their brotherly love and also the unity of the Church. In another, we see the two again side-by-side, with a church in the background or a small replica of a church being held by each. The replica symbolizes their role as church builders, reminding us that through their missionary efforts churches were founded in Antioch, Rome and in cities throughout Asia Minor and Greece. They are often also shown holding scrolls, reminding us of their epistles and their roles as teachers and evangelists.
It is easy to recognize Peter and Paul in icons throughout Christian history. Iconographers were influenced by the earliest Christian images of Peter and Paul, like those found in the fourth century catacomb of St. Thecla in Rome and thus, while striving to depict a spiritual reality, they also give us a sense of what each apostle may have looked like here on earth. Peter is shown with white, curly hair and a beard. For Paul, brown hair with a tapering beard and a high, balding forehead which denotes great wisdom and learning.
Saint Paul’s role as an apostle is also emphasized in the icons of the Ascension and Pentecost, where he is shown with the other apostles even though he wasn’t physically present at the time of the actual event. Again, a spiritual reality is depicted where, even though he wasn’t physically present, through the grace of the Holy Spirit he was able to come to understand the life and work of Christ and spread the gospel along with the other apostles. Indeed, it was he who was chosen to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.
On the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we read from the gospel of Matthew about Jesus asking the apostles “Who do you say that I am?” To this most important question Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” thus proclaiming the divinity of Jesus — something revealed to Peter through faith. And it is upon this rock — this confession of faith — that Jesus says that He will build His church and that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
It is the same confession of faith that all of the apostles will proclaim boldly, once witness to the Resurrection and lit with the flame of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Thus, even though we remember Peter and Paul specifically on June 29th, we also remember on the day that follows the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles, so that all of the apostles may be remembered and that God may be glorified through them.
So let us, as we observe the fast and approach the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, contemplate the faith of the apostles, a faith which transformed simple fishermen, timid and unlearned men, and even a great persecutor of the early church, into bold apostles and preachers who carried a message of hope and love — the good news of Christ’s saving resurrection and the opening of a door to eternal life — to all the world.
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas