Today is the feast of St. Peter-ad-Vincula. It recalls the event found in the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 12, verses 3-19) wherein St. Peter is imprisoned by Herod and then liberated by an angel, the chains falling from the Apostle's hands. The account shows St. Peter bewildered by God's sudden freeing power. Even those who first hear of his release cannot accept it, so unlikely it was.
This day in the English Calendar was also known as Lammas Day—the first harvest festival of the season, when wheat and bread made from the new crop were presented and blessed in a sort of English version of Shavout (Pentecost), linking the cycle of nature with the message of salvation from God in Christ. Thus, this day is really about beginnings and promise.
St. Peter had every reason to believe his earthly ministry was about to conclude while in prison; but God surprised him with a new lease on this life and freed him from what seemed a certain death. Many people have experienced something like this, whether it be from a near-death experience or deliverance from a life-threatening illness. After the initial bewilderment and intense sense of gratitude, it usually follows that the recipient of such a gift comes to see the rest of life as consecrated to a deeper purpose.
Just as the harvest entails great effort in order to have enough for the coming winter, so times of personal deliverance serve as a kind of harvest of God's grace to be used wisely in the coming seasons of life and not to be squandered by wandering back into the "old life" before.
I was thinking about this as I was driving back home through the Willamette Valley one evening recently. I passed by a large field where a crew baling hay by tractor-light as the sun went down. Harvest is hard work and must be accomplished within a definite time limit.
This made me think about my own brush with mortality last fall, when cancer showed up in my life and death took on a profound reality for me. One of the blessings God had for me in this was to understand the preciousness of earthly life, to know that the sun does set for us all here in this world and that every hour, each day and encounter with God, nature, and neighbor has an intense meaning and significance. My deliverance from cancer brought about bewilderment and gratitude…but increasingly a sense of the importance of living life with intentionality and purpose. The harvest season is in full swing for me.
On this same trip I was told about an exchange between two Christians where one person had challenged the integrity of another, damaging a relationship and injuring a parish community's shared ministry. Attitudes were hardening, figurative prison bars were being forged and locks being installed—when a simple apology and an offer to discuss things in humility could stop this process, allowing the work of harvesting to the glory of God to continue in peace. It made me think about this holy day in a new way.
St. Peter's ministry was in the hands of God; it was not time for that ministry to conclude, for there was work to do. Peter's understanding of that ministry itself was being re-formed in order to include Gentiles as well as Jews, and he would eventually be called to participate in the expanded work of the Great Harvest by sharing in the Council at Jerusalem and (tradition tells us) journeying to Rome itself. Liberated from an earthly prison, he was called not to return to a spiritual prison by going back to his old way of life and thinking. This is true for all of us who follow the Risen One. The sun is going down but the labor is not yet over; we must be about our business and cast away every shackle tying us to death in its various forms.
A collect for St. Peter-in-Chains prays God to "break the chains of our sins." Wherever sin has ensnared us, we turn to God in our daily prayer and confess it, opening our heart to his humbling grace and accepting the angelic guidance that takes us out of whatever prison to which we have been consigned—often of our own making.
For indeed, there are many forms of liberation in the spiritual life: liberation from prisons of shame, poverty, abuse, loss, hatred imposed on us from outside, and liberation from an imprisonment in which we have participated and to which we have sadly consented.
As we do the important work for justice and freedom for all people (especially the invisible people it would be easy to forget, where we might just be God’s angel sent to free them) we must be wary of falling into prisons of the mind and will that lock us up as completely in the spirit as an earthly prison locks up the body. God needs workers willing and able to share in the harvest labor, not penned-in onlookers holding, but unwilling to use, the key of their own liberation.
Collect for St. Peter ad Vincula
O God, who didst cause thy holy Apostle Peter to be loosed from his chains, and to depart without hurt; Break, we beseech thee, the chains of our sins, and mercifully put away all evil from us; though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For Prisons and Correctional Institutions
Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy’s sake. Amen.