The Keys & The Sword

When we look at Christian art, it's helpful to know some of the symbols.

For example, if you go to St. Lucy's in Yorkville, you will see a statue of the saint holding a small tray with eyes on it - that's because St. Lucy lost her eyes when she was tortured for her faith.

If you see a picture of a man in a cave holding a stone with a lion sitting next to him, you know that it's St. Jerome - the lion comes from a story that St. Jerome helped a lion by taking a thorn out of his paw, and the stone signifies the penances that he took upon himself.

The symbols of the saints we celebrate today are well known: St. Peter is usually depicted holding keys and St. Paul is shown holding a sword.

It's significant that we are celebrating the feast day of these two great saints on a Sunday because that doesn't happen too often. For most saints, if their feast day falls on a Sunday, it just doesn't get celebrated in the liturgy that year; but Peter and Paul are different.

Both Peter and Paul ended their lives in Rome, the capital of the world they knew. Paul was beheaded (that is one reason why he's shown with a sword) and Peter was crucified upside down out of love and respect for his Lord Jesus, so sometimes he's depicted with an upside down cross as well.

What brought these two very different men all the way from their homes in the East was their encounter with Jesus Christ.

Peter, known then as Simon, was a fisherman from Galilee. He had a life and a way to support himself and his family. He worshipped God and followed the laws of the Jewish faith. We can see from the gospels that he was a man of action - almost impulsive. But everything changed when Jesus said to him and his brother, Andrew, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." From that time on, Peter's whole world revolved around the life and mission of Jesus.

We can see how much Jesus meant to Peter in the gospel reading for this feast day. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They tell him that the crowds believe he is a prophet, maybe even one of the great prophets who has returned. Then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” and Peter's response is one of the most important moments of his life: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

It's on that faith that Jesus tells Peter that he will be the rock on which the Church is built and he will receive the "keys to the Kingdom of heaven." From that moment, the path of Peter's life that leads him to death on a cross in Rome is set. He will be the leader of this new community that Jesus is building. The keys that he holds in Christian art symbolize the authority that Jesus gave to Peter and his successors.

But others will play a part as well, even someone as unexpected as Saul of Tarsus, who we know as the apostle Paul.

Paul was a highly educated man. He studied in Jerusalem with the greatest rabbi of that time, but was also very knowledgeable of the Greek culture, of philosophy and poetry. We could say that he was a professional when it came to his religion and arguing it.

We come to know about Saul because of his zealous persecution of the first Christians. He was present at the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith, and the Acts of the Apostles tell us that he was out to destroy the Church.

But Paul's life changed when he encountered Jesus.

We all know the story: Paul was traveling to Damascus in Syria to continue his attack on the Church, he's blinded by a light from the sky, and hear's the voice of Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Notice that Jesus doesn't say, "Why are you persecuting my followers?" or "Why are you persecuting the Church?" Jesus is one with his Church, so Paul is persecuting him.

In that moment, Paul realizes that he was wrong, and from then on, his whole life is dedicated to sharing that news, that Jesus, who died, is alive and is the Son of God. Just as he had enthusiastically fought the Church, Paul spends the rest of his life building it up. His symbol, the sword, is a good representation of the energy and devotion he put into his mission of making Jesus known.

Both of these great saints were shaken out their expected paths and led, by God, to build the Church in its very beginning. Peter, with the authority given to him by Jesus - the keys of the Kingdom - leads the Church. When questions arise - such as the question of whether non-Jewish converts have to become Jewish to be Christians - Peter gives the definitive answers. His successors, the popes, who shepherd the Church from the place of Peter's burial on the Vatican Hill in Rome, have continued to safeguard the truth of our Faith ever since.

But the Church is also about reaching out, about proclaiming the saving gospel of Jesus. In that we also follow the example of St. Paul who took his faith in Jesus and showed how it fulfilled the word of God in the Jewish scriptures. He took the good news from it's birthplace in the East and spread it to people all around the Mediterranean, Jew and Gentile alike. He was, and still is, one of the greatest missionaries of the Faith.

God called these two men and made them pillars of the early Church. Their faith and courage still inspire and strengthen us today. As Christians of our time, we need to continue to follow their example: listening to and following the leadership of Peter, especially in the pope and our bishops, and living with the missionary zeal of Paul, always ready to declare our faith in the Lord.