November 25 – Peter of Alexandria

Pope and Patriarch Peter of Alexandria (d. 311) may have been brought up by his teacher, mentor, and predecessor Theonas. We do know that he (Peter) ran the Catechetical School of Alexandria (mascot: the Fighting Sphinxes), and succeeded his predecessor, which is how succession usually works. When the Diocletian persecutions hit Egypt, Peter fled the city and wandered the countryside, encouraging his flock, visiting those in prison, and in general being a good bishop. Archbishop. Patriarch. Pope. All of the above.

In his absence the evil Meletius plopped himself on the patriarchal throne, and began appointing bishops (including Arius) to sees that weren’t vacant (their bishops were in exile). That he seemed to encounter no resistance from the brute squad is taken as evidence that he was making pagan sacrifices. When Peter returned, he excommunicated Arius (but not, interestingly, Meletius). Our Lord had appeared to Peter in the form of a twelve-year-old child, and his garment was rent (as opposed to rented; that would be silly). “Who rent your garment?” Peter asked. “Arius, who will also rend my church,” came the reply.

Peter got into a bitter dispute with Meletius over what to do with the lapsi, people who had renounced their Christianity, then thought better of it. Meletius held that they should be baptized again; Peter proposed to readmit them upon their repentance and contrition. He wrote reams about it, in fact, and his writings were referred to heavily (if you can refer heavily; expert opinions vary) by future Ecumenical Councils. In one account, Peter and Meletius were imprisoned together, and spent many dreary hours arguing about it, until Peter, seeing they weren’t going to agree, hung a curtain in their cell so they wouldn’t have to look at each other. The account doesn’t say where he got the curtain. Perhaps it was rented.

Finally the government nabbed him, and Peter was sentenced to die and dragged off to prison. A mob of angry Christians appeared, and the soldiers, vastly outnumbered, feared a riot would break out. Peter, clearly more clever than they, had an ingenious plan. “Knock a hole in the back of the prison, where nobody’s watching,” he suggested, “and smuggle me out by cover of night.” The soldiers did just that, and took him to the place where their predecessors had murdered St. Mark the Evangelist all those centuries before.

At first they were unwilling to do the deed. There were six of them, and they stood looking at each other. “I’m not going to kill him. You do it,” one said. “Oh, no, you do it,” said another. Finally they agreed that whoever did the deed would get paid five denarii from each of the others. (Math problem: how many denarii would the executioner get paid under this scheme? Explain your answer. Use back of page if necessary.) This plan nearly came to naught when they realized none of them had any money except one; fortunately he had exactly 25 denarii (did you get that answer?), and put it up on behalf of his comrades. So one of them did the deed. Our sources don’t say what he did with the money.

The next night Peter’s disciples came and took his body (and head) to the cathedral. They dressed him in his robes of office and sat him on the cathedra. He had never sat on it before; he had always used a small footstool in front of it. (Tolkien reference, anyone?) He had explained that every time he went to sit on it, he beheld a heavenly light and the presence of a divine power, and he thought better of it. The night he died, a pious yet unnamed virgin heard a heavenly voice say, “Peter was the first of the apostles, and Peter is the last of the Alexandrian Martyrs.” (And sure enough the Edict of Toleration was just around the corner, although our pious virgin couldn’t have known that. Or could she?) For this reason the Copts refer to Peter as “the seal and complement of the martyrs.”