The First Martyrs of the Church of Rome
We know already that most liturgical memorials do not necessarily correspond to exact historical dates. One obvious reason is that our way of reckoning time is significantly different than in the past. Moreover, it does not really matter in liturgy to mark significant dates as to celebrate important mysteries in the life of the Church.
However, the plotting of dates in the liturgical calendar is also not arbitrary, most if not all of the time. We know for example that the date of Christmas was strategically juxtaposed to the pagan feast of the Sol Invictus to make a fine theological affirmation about Christ, the True Sun that never dies and gives eternal life. The same also seems to be true for today's memorial of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome.
Historically of course, the first martyrs were martyred 'in the same batch' as Peter and Paul during the persecution under Nero. The Solemnity of Peter and Paul is, as it were, 'sandwiched' between the memorials of two early bishops and doctors of the Church (St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Irenaeus of Lyons) and the celebration of the first martyrs of the Roman Church. As in life, and indeed in death, they preached and witnessed to Christ together, so in the liturgy they are honored together.
But more than that, the actual placing of the Solemnity of the Two Great Pillars of the Church in the middle of these celebrations seems to be key to understanding the full meaning of this particular juncture in the Church's Sanctoral. As in the 'intercalation' technique used by the Gospel writers, the middle enhances the meaning of the frame as the frame sheds light on the meaning of the middle.
Saints Peter and Paul witnessed to Christ not only by their leadershiop as pastors and teaching as bishops, they also proclaimed the Gospel by giving their lives in witness to the certain triumph of the Crucified Christ who is Risen from the dead and lives forever. The bishops and doctors not only spoke and taught about the truths of the faith, they also had to endure many hardships to stand for their convictions, even if they did not have to undergo a literal death in confessing their belief. At the same time, a martyr cannot give true witness to Christ by simply dying for him. Indeed, an authentic martyr's death is only made possible by many small dyings to self in living the demands of discipleship, confessing their faith in the grind of the everyday.
And so let us pray on this memorial of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, for the strength to live our faih and the grace to endure many little dyings to self in order to follow Jesus. By the way we live our lives, may we always proclaim the meaning of his death; and by our constant dying, the glory of the Risen life he has won for us.