Sunday, April 19 marked the end of the Easter Octave, a continuous eight-day intensive liturgical celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection. The Feast of Christmas has a similar eight-day octave. The concept of “octave” is more evident for those who attend daily Mass, where all the Easter Gospel narratives are proclaimed sequentially through the week. Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily use the solemn form of the prayers and psalms. The Sunday after Easter [now known as the Second Sunday of Easter since 1969] is a day rich in tradition, as it was and is the final day of the Octave. In my youth the Sunday after Easter was known as “Low Sunday.”
The name “Low Sunday,” at its heart, probably has a psychological basis, implying that the week of festivities has drawn to a close and the time has come for Christians, particularly the newly baptized, to get to the hard work of preaching and evangelizing. The official Latin name for this eighth day was Dominica in albis depositis, “the Sunday for removing the white [Baptismal] robes.” The theme of Baptism was always a major part of the Octave liturgies. The new Roman Missal  extends the Octave mood over seven weeks, to include the Ascension and, on the final day of the Easter Season, Pentecost.
History gives us some insights into how the post Easter Sunday life of the Church was celebrated ritually. Although the catechumens receive much of the attention then and today, the Church envisioned the Baptismal action as a joint one for both the new and the veteran Christians. And as the white baptismal gowns are put aside, the final stage of the Baptismal process began, a period referred to as the mystagogia. The mystagogia was and is a period of intense reflection on the sacraments just celebrated, the cleansing of baptismal water, the passing on of the Holy Spirit, and the first eating and drinking of the Lord’s Body and Blood. [See Peg Ekerdt’s observations on parish mystagogia here.] The opening antiphon of last Sunday’s Mass, written around 100 A.D., sums up the experience of mystagogia well. “Like newborn children you should thirst for milk, on which your spirit can grow to strength, alleluia.” [1 Peter 2:2]
The antiphon comes from the very brief New Testament book, First Peter. There is a companion letter, Second Peter, which we will address in another post in this series. Looking at last Sunday’s Liturgy, the above cited antiphon and the Second Reading of the Mass indicates that in the weekend Mass after Easter 1 Peter enjoys a place of prominence, though the depiction of Doubting Thomas from John’s Gospel probably stays with the listener in a more affective sense. Peter’s words from the second reading of Sunday’s Mass compliment John’s narrative quite well. Both are addressed to hesitant believers and remind them of their holy nature, rendered by God through Baptism. Both are words of encouragement and power to hearers surrounded by persecutors and an unredeemed world. Both recall the hearers to their mission, to live and work in the World as Christ in the flesh, a vocation for which Baptism has transformed them.
Are St. Peter and the author of 1 Peter the same person? The author identifies himself as Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, and there is consensus that the letter is intended to carry the importance of one who was close to Jesus. There are several instances in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures where a book may carry the title of a famous leader while the actual writing and editorial shaping was undertaken by a close disciple or even a community of believers; this is most evident in the books attributed to the Apostle John. It is worth noting that in the fourth century, when the collection of books for the New Testament Canon was completed, the two letters of Peter were included in the body of Revelation.
The introduction to 1 Peter found in the NABRE translation explains the authorship question well. The letter is addressed to Christians—apparently recently baptized—in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, all territories in modern day Turkey, an exceptionally long distance from Rome. As the letter describes persecutions, modern day historians have attempted to pin down a period of governmental assault on Christians in this territory and have found little. The Emperor Trajan issued a surviving instruction to the Bithynian governor, Pliny the Younger, in 110 A.D. to condemn confessed Christians but not to exert himself nor listen to spies. Roman persecutions did not become empire-wide till the Emperor Decius [249-251 A.D.] As with the Jews, Christians seemed to have suffered most from local outbursts of fanaticism focused against their lifestyle and survival. Thus, the dating of this letter remains somewhat in doubt, though the later the dating, the less likely St. Peter is the original author.
There is another literary aspect of 1 Peter that suggests this work is not the sole product of a single Galilean fisherman. The Paulist Commentary calls 1 Peter “one of the most polished Greek texts in the New Testament.” [Even the best English translations such as the NABRE cannot do full justice to the nuances of the Greek.] Moreover, the author’s command of the Greek language is without equal. There is a term for a word that is used only once in a literary collection: hapax. 1 Peter contains 66 examples of hapax, more than the rest of the New Testament combined. Some scholars have theorized that the actual author of 1 Peter is Silvanus; in 1 Peter 5:12 Peter states: “Through Silvanus, whom I consider a faithful brother, I have written this short letter.” The Paulist commentator, Bernardo Estrada, favors a Peter-Silvanus joint effort but admits that other hypotheses and dating issues must be consulted.
A strong case can be made that 1 Peter incorporates an early written sermon-instruction to the newly baptized. It is a combination of doctrinal and moral instruction. The first section is a summary of Baptism: God has given a new birth into a living hope. Writing to communities under outside pressure, the nature of baptism—its infusion of a new life and a promise of glory beyond the grave—is a reminder that surviving persecution or facing the sword will both lead to a glorious finale in the fullness of God’s presence. Persecution literature often contains elements of apocalyptic, a mysterious end time when all unknowns will be revealed.
1 Peter continues with emphasis upon one’s “election by God,” that one has been called out of the world of darkness, a term often applied to the Roman Empire in the later New Testament. This letter does not enter the thorny Reformation question of predestination, i.e., that God calls some and not others. Borrowing the Hebrew Scriptural understanding of morality, 1 Peter describes the baptismal life as one of strict personal holiness. “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” At the end of time stands the God of all grace to call them to his eternal glory in Christ. 1 Peter includes the Gentiles as among those called by God into what is termed “The People of God.” Two millennia later, the Council Vatican II would describe the family of the Church as “the people of God” in its teaching documents [along with “the pilgrim people of God.”]
The key theological teaching of 1 Peter is “the presentation of Jesus Christ as the model of righteous suffering. The second of two hymns embedded in the work “urges the audience to endure suffering, even unjust suffering, ‘for Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” [Paulist Commentary, p. 1536]