[Consonant with both Anglicanism’s and monasticism’s love of patristic theology-spirituality, I occasionally post selections from Durham University’s two-year lectionary for the Divine Office that draws mostly from patristic writings. The lectionary was initially edited by Stephen Mark Holmes (University of Edinburgh School of Divinity) and subsequently re-edited and formatted by Michele Freyhauf (Durham University). Click here for the link to the lectionary.]
Patristic Lectionary—30 April, Thursday in the Third Week of Eastertide
[The image is of Domenico Fetti’s “Saint Peter’s Vision of the Unclean Animals (ca. 1620)]
Acts of the Apostles 10:1-33
Peter Called to the House of the Centurion Cornelius
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror, and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and bring one Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those that waited on him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men that were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house, and to hear what you have to say.” So he called them in to be his guests.
The next day he rose and went off with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his kinsmen and close friends. When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered; and he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”
And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house; and behold, a man stood before me in bright apparel, saying, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the seaside.’ So I sent to you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
Sermon 149,5-10 (Works of Saint Augustine , translated by Edmund Hill, O.P.)
All the commandments given to the Jews are shadowy signs of things to come. After the light of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, has come, they are read only in order to be understood, not also in order to be observed. So Christians have been given the freedom to eat what they like, in moderation, with a blessing, with thanksgiving. So perhaps Peter too was told Kill and eat in this sense, that he need no longer be bound to Jewish observances.
But all the same, to prove to you that all this was a symbolic showing, that vessel contained creeping things; could he possibly eat creeping things? So what does all this symbolism mean? That receptacle signifies the Church; the four lines it was hanging from are the four quarters of the earth, through which the Catholic Church stretches. So all those who wish to go apart into a sect and to cut
themselves off from the whole, do not belong to the sacred reality signified by the four lines. God says his holy ones are to be gathered together at the end from the four winds, because now the Gospel faith is being spread abroad through all those four cardinal points of the compass. So those animals are the nations which were unclean in their superstitions and lusts before Christ came.
It’s clear, you see, from many places in Scripture that Peter can stand for, or represent, the Church; the Church is the body of Christ. Let him then receive the Gentiles now made clean, their sins having been forgiven; that’s why the gentile Cornelius had sent for him. This man’s charities had been accepted and had cleansed him after a fashion; it only remained for him, like clean food, to be incorporated into the Church, that is, into the Lord’s body. Peter, though, was worried about handing the Gospel over to the Gentiles, because those of the circumcision who believed were not allowing the Apostles to hand on the Christian faith to the uncircumcised unless they accepted circumcision, which had been the tradition of their ancestors.
So that receptacle removed this hesitation of his; and that’s why after that vision he was allowed by the Holy Spirit to go with the men who had come from Cornelius; and off he went. Cornelius, you see, and the people with him were to be regarded as being among those animals which had been shown him in that receptacle; God, however, had already made them clean, because he had accepted the charitable acts they had performed from there. So now they had to be killed and eaten; that is, the old life in which they had not known Christ was to be slain in them, and they were to pass over into his body, as into the new life of the fellowship of the Church.
Why was it let down three times from heaven? Because all these nations, who belong to the four quarters of the globe, where the Church signified by the four lines to which that receptacle was connected is being sown like seed, are baptized in the name of the Trinity. They are being renewed by believing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in order to belong to the communion of the saints. So the four lines and the triple letting down also yields the number twelve of the Apostles; as though three each were allotted to the four quarters. Four threes, you see, make twelve. I think that’s enough, don’t you, about this vision.