Conversion of St. Paul and the Feasts of Apostles

Today, January 25th, is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. There is a nice arrangement of the liturgical calendar in the fact that exactly one month after Christmas, in the season of Epiphany, comes the feast of the great missionary apostle. It is also the last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This eight-day period has been observed since 1908. It begins on January 18. Originally Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches all observed it as feast of St. Peter. Thus the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity unites the feast of these two apostles who are often seen as rivals.

It is possible to read too much into the traditional assignment of days to the feasts of biblical saints. Since the dates of their death or martyrdom are generally unknown, their traditional days have more do to with the dedication of churches in their honor, if their origin is known at all.

But, since allegorical interpretation is common in Christianity, one may consider that:

  • The feast of St. Andrew, the first apostle to be called to follow Jesus, begins the liturgical year on November 30.
  • The feast of “doubting” Thomas occurs on the shortest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere) when the light of the sun begins to grow stronger over the darkness of the night.
  • The feast of John the Apostle, Evangelist, and Beloved Disciple is closest to Jesus’ birthday. This is fitting both because he was the disciple who reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper, and whom the Gospel of John says served as an intermediary for Peter on a few occasions.
  • The twin feasts of the Confession of Peter and the Conversion of Paul have a nice alliterative symmetry in English. They twin the sometime-rival apostles in the winter even as they are twinned in the feast of their martyrdom in the summer on June 29. As Paul has often been seen as the “type” and “representative” of Protestantism, grace, and freedom and Peter of Roman Catholicism, law, and order, octave, or eight days including their feasts is well chosen as a time to emphasize Christian Unity. They also figure most prominently in the story of early Christian missions in the Acts of the Apostles and thus fittingly occur in the season of Epiphany that is so closely associated with mission.
  • The feasts of Simon and Jude, two of the most obscure apostles occurs near the end of the year, shortly before the feast of All Saints’, which exists in part to honor those saints whom the church has forgotten.

Of course not all Christian observe the same calendar of saints. In reforming and consolidating their medieval inheritance, Western Christian have taken slightly different paths. In the 1960s, the Roman Catholic church

  • Moved the feast of St. Thomas to July 3 so it would not be overshadowed by the special observances leading up to Christmas.
  • Moved the feast of St. Matthais was moved from February 25, which often falls in Lent, to May 14. Some have suggested that it be observed on the Monday after the Ascension, since Mathias’s only appearance in the Bible is when he is chosen after Jesus’ ascension and before Pentecost.
  • Combined the two feasts of the Chair of Peter (on January 18 and February 22) into one on February 22.

Anglicans and Lutherans kept January 18 as the Confession of St. Peter and did not observe February 22. But they have divided among themselves on whether to follow the other changes. The Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod have kept the traditional dates, while the Church of England and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have adopted the new Roman dates. The two major variations of the the Western calendar of apostolic feasts follow below.

Calendar of the Episcopal Church and Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod

November 30 – Andrew
December 21 – Thomas
December 27 – John
January 18 – Peter (confession of)
January 25 – Paul (conversion of)
February 25 – Matthias
May 1 – Philip and James (the less, son of Alphaeus)
June 11 – Barnabas
June 29 – Peter and Paul
July 25 – James (the greater, son of Zebedee)
August 24 – Bartholomew
September 21 – Matthew
October 28 – Simon and Jude

General Roman Calendar

November 30 – Andrew
December 27 – John
January 25 – Paul (conversion of)
February 22 – Peter (chair of)
May 3 – Philip and James (the less, son of Alphaeus)
May 14 – Matthias
June 11 – Barnabas
June 29 – Peter and Paul
July 3 – Thomas
July 25 – James (the greater, son of Zebedee)
August 24 – Bartholomew
September 21 – Matthew
October 28 – Simon and Jude

St. John the Evangelist, Philip Schaff, and Christian Unity

Today, December 27, is the feast day of St. John the Evangelist. While internal evidence in the Bible suggests otherwise, tradition identifies him as the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the author of all five books in the New Testament ascribed to a John. As such his role in the New Testament is rivaled only by Peter and Paul. He is recognized in Christian art by usually being beardless or symbolized by an eagle or a chalice with a snake.

St. John the Evangelist represented as on the base of pulpit in Cordoba Cathedal, Spain, and in a rose window at St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

Co-editing the works of the pioneering church historian Philip Schaff with my colleague Ted Trost, I learned much about the adulation John has received through the centuries. Schaff was born almost 200 years ago on January 1, 1819. Next week the bicentennial of his birth will be celebrated at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History, which he founded.

In his first book, The Principle of Protestantism (1845), Schaff wrote

John, the apostle of love, has not without reason been styled by the church the “Theologian” per eminentiam. For by the eagle flight of his believing speculation into the depths of God and his Word as existing before the world and then made flesh for our salvation, he may be said to have led the way to Christian theology in its bold and glorious course. His love is only the strong will-force of knowledge, his knowledge but the keen vision of love.

The whole history of the Church furnishes proof that the men who have exerted the greatest and most happy influence, the wakers of a new life, the pillars of the temple of God, have always been distinguished also above there contemporaries by a thorough scientific cultivation.

Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, trans. John W. Nevin, in The Development of the Church, edited by David R. Bains and Theodore Louis Trost (Wipf and Stock, 2017), 175-6.

Schaff cites a medieval Latin hymn in praise of John. In his St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology, Jeffery Hamburger translates it:

He flies like a bird without limit,
in that neither seer nor prophet
ever flew higher.
As much what would be fulfilled as what has been,
never were so many secrets seen
so purely by a pure man.

Cited in Development of the Church, 175

Schaff was an ecumenist, passionately concerned with the reunion of what he, following his German teachers, called the church of Peter (Roman Catholicism) with the church of Paul (Protestantism) in the coming church of John. He closes the Principle of Protestantism stating

The revivification of the spirit of John the evangelist, in the Church, will open the way directly for his second coming, to establish the Church absolute and triumphant, in which law and freedom shall both be perfect in one, and the results of all previous development appear conserved as the constituent elements of a higher and more
glorious state. To this refers the mystical sense of Christ’s word, John 21:22, where he speaks enigmatically of John’s tarrying till his second coming.

Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, in The Development of the Church, 190.

With such an emphasis on John–the beloved disciple, the theologian, the evangelist, the author of Revelation–as the embodiment of the coming church of the future, it is unsurprising that Americans would name him patron of their largest and most ambitious church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Its name was fixed in a 1873 charter when Schaff was in his prime at age 54. Its cornerstone was laid on this day in 1892 a year before Schaff’s death. Its structure, like the reunion of Christ’s visible church is still unfinished.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, New York. Crossing and choir (interior, 2009), Exterior from the south.

While for Schaff, the key attributes of John were knowledge and love, the traditional Anglican collect for this feast highlights the theme of the light of truth appropriate for this dark time of year in the northern hemisphere. The phrasing in the Church of England’s Common Worship captures it best.

Merciful Lord,
cast your bright beams of light upon the Church:
that, being enlightened by the teaching of your most blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John,
we may so walk in the light of your truth
that we may at last attain to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.