Our holy father among the saints Peter was reared by the blessed Theonas, Archbishop of Alexandria. Peter succeeded Theonas to the throne as shepherd of the city during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian, the impious emperors of Rome. At that time, a fierce and nearly unendurable persecution raged against the Christians. Christ’s martyrs filled every prison; their blood was shed in the streets of every city and throughout the countryside. Such were the sorrowful, grievous times during which Saint Peter guided the Church of God, toiling with limitless patience. By his teaching and the brave example of his invincible faith he strengthened many who were fearful, saving them from falling into apostasy. He led numerous others to receive the crown of martyrdom and as himself forced into exile for Christ, wandering through Tyre, Phoenicia, and Palestine, from whence he encouraged his flock by letter, fortifying it through the power of the Holy Spirit. Anxious lest any of the Christians fall away from Christ out of fear of torture, he spent day and night with hands uplifted in prayer to God for the members of his flock. Upon returning to Alexandria, he served those held in prison for !he faith. These numbered 660, among whom were many presbyters and clerics; all were put to death by various means. Seeing them suffer to the end, Peter rejoiced in the Spirit.
While Peter was shepherding Christ’s flock, a crafty wolf appeared in Alexandria, disguised in sheep’s clothing. This was the heretic Arius, who began to sow among the wheat the demonic tares of his accursed teaching, blaspheming against the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ and bringing much harm to the Church of God. The good shepherd Peter frequently opposed that wolf, punishing him and forbidding him to speak against the Church’s good confession of the Holy Trinity, which was passed down to her unsullied from the holy Apostles. When the second Judas, the blasphemer, slave, and liar, proved incorrigible, unshakeable in his hatred of God and unwilling to submit to the truth, Saint Peter anathematized him, excommunicating him from the Church and cutting him off like a rotten branch. Driven away from the flock of Christ, the wolf hid himself like night from the day, for everyone, it is written, that doeth evil hateth the Light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved (John 3). Thus the iniquitous Arius concealed himself from the good shepherd, whom no lie or cunning word could deceive.
The holy Church of Alexandria continued to grow, despite the difficulties of the times, since the persecution failed to close the path to Christ for those who sought salvation. Many accepted Holy Baptism, forsaking the worship of idols and surrendering to God not only their possessions but their very lives, in accordance with Peter's teaching.
Meanwhile, Arius learned that Peter, who had excommunicated him from the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, was in prison fettered, awaiting death for Christ. He went to the holy hierarch, hypocritically feigning repentance, in the hope of succeeding the saint as Archbishop of Alexandria. He asked forgiveness, pretended to repent of his blasphemous heresy, and begged several presbyters, especially Achilles and Alexander, to entreat Saint Peter to forgive him his offense and to accept him into communion. But God, Who knows all the secrets of our hearts and perceives man’s thoughts from afar, saw the evil in Arius’ heart, and appearing by night to the blessed Peter, revealed to him the wicked intentions of the heretic, whom He commanded not be received back by the Holy Church. The next morning, many of the right-believing and noble citizens, together with the presbyters Achilles and Alexander, came to the prison, and falling down at the feet of the holy Archbishop, entreated him to forgive Arius and to lift his sentence. But the blessed Peter, weeping and sighing, answered them, “Beloved, you do not know for whom it is that you make this request.
You know that I love all my sheep and do not wish that even one of them should perish. Before all else I pray God’s compassion to grant salvation to all and to forgive the sins of every man. But Arius I refuse to accept, for he has been cast out of the Holy Church by God Himself and excommunicated not so much in accordance with my judgment as with God’s. He has sinned not against men but against God, blaspheming the mystery of the Holy Trinity, upon Whom cherubim and seraphim dare not gaze. Unto our triune God they cry without ceasing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth’, and the hosts of heaven say, ‘Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory’; but that shameless heretic dares by his blasphemy to create division between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How can I forgive him against whom all creation, on behalf of its Maker, is angered? May Arius be accursed, both in this age and in that to come!”
You ask forgiveness for a man who rends and shall tear asunder the Church of Christ.
All who had come to intercede for Arius fell at the saint’s feet and dared not trouble him any more. Then Peter took the presbyters Achilles and Alexander aside and said to them, “I am a sinful man, but the Lord my God has called me to receive the crown of martyrdom. Before I die, I wish to tell you, who are pillars of the Church, what the Lord revealed to me last night. You, honorable Achilles, shall succeed me on the throne as Archbishop of Alexandria, and the worthy presbyter Alexander shall succeed you.
Those who fall into sin are easily forgiven, but how can I forgive him for whom you sought to intercede? He is full of deceit and irreverence, and his unsettled heart pours forth a river of blasphemy against the Son of God. The almighty Son of God, the Creator of all things visible and invisible, Whom the prophets, apostles, and evangelists proclaimed, he calls a creature. How can you expect me to grant your request and to show mercy on Arius, when he has not hearkened to my reproofs, nor accepted them in his heart? I call him accursed, not by my own judgment but by that of Christ my God, Who appeared to me last night. As I was praying, according to my custom, a brilliant light suddenly shone in my prison cell, and I beheld the Lord Jesus Christ in the guise of a youth twelve years of age. His face was more radiant than the sun, so that I could not bear to look upon the ineffable glory of His countenance. He was clad in a white robe torn from top to bottom, which He held to His breast with both hands to cover His nakedness. Seeing this, terror fell upon me, and I asked Him, ‘Who is it, O Saviour, that hath rent Thy garment?’
Do not think that I have been unmerciful to Arius, showing no pity to one who has sinned. Even the greatest sin committed because of human weakness pales beside Arius' iniquity.
“The Lord answered, ‘The mindless Arius rent it by dividing the people Whom I redeemed with My blood. Take care not to receive him into communion with the Church, for he has devised wickedness against Me and My flock. Pay no heed to those who beseech you to forgive him, and do not accept a wolf as a sheep. Enjoin Achilles and Alexander, who shall succeed you as Bishop, not to receive him but to rebuke him before all.’
“‘I have told you what was commanded me,’ concluded the saint, ‘and if you do not heed me and do as the Lord commanded, I shall be without blame.'”
Having said this, Peter prostrated himself and prayed, and the others prayed with him. Then he said, “Pray for also, brethren.”
The presbyters answered, “Amen.”
Achilles and Alexander kissed the saint's hands and wept, knowing they would not see him again. The presbyters then related to the people everything the blessed Peter had said concerning Arius and how he had commanded them not to accept the accursed heretic into the Holy Church, for he was a deceiver and an enemy of the Son of God.
After night fell, the tribune came with soldiers, who secretly opened a hole through the back wall of the prison large enough for a single person to pass through. It would have been impossible for them to enter through the prison doors, because a large number of Christians kept watch. It was a windy, wintry night, and none of the faithful heard the sounds made by the soldiers as they broke through the wall. Signing himself with the Cross, Saint Peter said, “It is better for me to die alone than for the people to perish.” Then, unknown to the faithful, he left the prison. Marveling at the saint’s readiness to die, the tribune and his soldiers led him to the place where the holy Apostle Mark had met his end and beheaded him there.
Near Saint Mark’s grave there lived a virgin recluse who toiled for God. While praying on the night Saint Peter died, she heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Peter was first among the apostles, and Peter is the last of the martyrs of Alexandria.”
Day broke, and the people learned that their pastor had been secretly removed from the prison and beheaded. Weeping and lamenting, they went to the place where the saint’s remains lay and took the relics to the church. Placing his precious head upon his body, they sat him in his throne at the High Place, upon which the holy hierarch never once sat during his lifetime. Throughout all his years as pastor, he sat on a footstool at the times appointed for sitting, though the people and clergy often entreated him to be seated upon his throne. One day, after the Divine Liturgy, Saint Peter explained to them, “Do you know why I do not sit on my throne or ascend the steps leading to it? It is because when I draw near, I see a heavenly light shining on it and sense the presence of a divine power. I am filled with terror and do not dare sit there, for I know myself to be unworthy. Instead, I sit on the footstool, and still feel fear. Now that I have told you this, trouble me no longer.”
For this reason the people sat Saint Peter upon his throne after his death, crying, “Pray for us, God’s holy favorite!” After this, they buried him with reverence, glorifying the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the one God Whom we also honor and worship, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.