The opening of today’s Second Reading from St Paul (2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18) reminds me of an incident that occurred recently involving one of the two people contesting the leadership of the Conservative Party and who is the favourite to be the next British Prime Minister.
It was widely reported that police were called to the London home of the former Foreign Secretary in response to reports of an alleged altercation between him and his girlfriend. They began arguing, it was reported, when she became angry at him for spilling red wine on a sofa.
In the Second Reading, St Paul refers to his life ‘being poured away as a libation’. A libation then was the deliberate pouring out of wine on to the ground by Romans as an offering to a god or deity. I doubt that the Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip had a libation in mind when he defaced the couch; more than likely what happened was just a simple accident, the likes of which can happen to any of us who sip this ‘nectar of the gods’.
What did Paul mean by describing his life as a libation?
Paul wrote as an elderly man under house arrest and for whom death was not far away. He looked back on his life with serenity and believed that he had been sustained every step of the way with God’s help. Now he was dedicating the remainder of his life as a ‘libation’ or sacrifice to God – that is, just as Romans offered the first drops of their wines to their gods, Paul was now pouring out the last drops of his life to the service of Jesus Christ.
Previously, Paul had been a strict Jew who persecuted Christians. This changed when, he claimed, he met the Risen Jesus Christ while on a journey to Damascus. This led him for the next thirty years to travel over 10,000 miles proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His journeys on land and sea – no mean feat in those days – took him primarily through present day Israel, Syria, Turkey, and Greece.
Paul’s life began to draw to a close when he was arrested in Jerusalem for bringing non-Jews into the Temple (Acts 21: 27 – 36). He was saved from being beaten to death when the Roman Tribune intervened and detained him in the army barracks. In defending himself Paul claimed his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to the Emperor in Rome. He was then sent to Rome and imprisoned there for three years while his case was decided. Finally, he was sentenced to death and beheaded outside of the walls of Rome, around the year 67.
Paul shares today’s feast with St Peter. During the three years that the apostles lived with Jesus, the Gospels record that Peter was often the spokesman for the group. When Jesus asked them in today’s Gospel text, “Who do you say I am?” it was Peter who replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It was on this profession of faith by Peter that the Church was founded and Peter went on to become the leader, the first Pope, of the early Church.
Like Paul, Peter was imprisoned many times for proclaiming the Gospel. (Today’s First Reading describes him escaping detention on one occasion.) Eventually, in Rome sometime around the year 64, he was sentenced to death by crucifixion during the Roman Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians. No accounts of his or Paul’s death are found in the New Testament but legend has it that when Peter came to be crucified, he requested that he be fastened to the cross upside-down as he felt unworthy to die as Jesus did.
Peter was buried in an old Roman cemetery, where the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter stands today. Bones and an inscription found under the basilica’s altar in 1968 confirmed this as his burial place. In 2006 archaeologists confirmed that the remains of St Paul were buried in the underground chamber of the Church of St Paul-Outside-The-Walls in Rome.
From as early as the year 258 there is evidence of a tradition of celebrating the martyrdom of both Saint Peter and Saint Paul on the same day. In our celebration here we, with members of the Catholic Church all over the world, form part of this lengthy tradition. We do so in communion with Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome and successor to St Peter, with the faith in Jesus Christ proclaimed by Peter and Paul, both of whose lives were ‘poured away as a libation’ to their and Our Lord.
Holy Name, Jesmond
30 June 2019