March 8, 2007
Both Jesus and Peter made predictions at the Last Supper. Peter predicted that he would never deny Jesus, even if it meant prison and death (cf. Lk 22:33; Mt 26:35). Jesus predicted that Peter would fail. In the courtyard of the high priest, Jesus’ words come true. Three times Peter denies Jesus. To his prophecy of Peter’s fall, Jesus had added a promise. “And you, when you have turned around, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 23:21-32). Peter would fall, but he would rise again. He will turn from Jesus, but he will return back, forgiven and confirmed in grace. The Lord never abandons his disciples. “If we are faithless, he is faithful still, for he cannot disown his own self” (2 Tim 2:12).
All the gospels tell us that a cock crows as Peter is denying Jesus for the third time. It is in the early hours of the morning, somewhere between 3 and 5 a.m. This is the second time the cock crows. And Peter remembers Jesus’ words: “Before the cock crows twice, you will have disowned me three times” (Mk 14:72). Luke alone gives us the following detail. “At that instant, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed, and the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered the Lord’s words…” (Lk 22: 60-62). Even as nature accuses the sinner, the Lord of all creation looks at Peter with love.
Jesus looked at Peter. The sinner is never out of the Lord’s sight. The Lord sees us every moment of our lives. We go about our work. We enjoy the good things of this world. Sometimes we try to escape notice as one of his disciples. Yet the Lord sees. And his look is beyond that of the judge pronouncing the sentence of guilty. As long as we are on this earth, his look is that of the compassionate Savior who longs to lift us up.
In his threefold denial of Jesus, Peter is thinking of himself. He is disguising his identity to save his skin. Once Jesus looks at Peter with love, his glance melts Peter’s cold indifference to the Master’s suffering. In that look of love, Peter sees clearly how grave his sin truly is. He has not merely denied an idea. He has not simply stepped out of the company of disciples. He has been unfaithful to Jesus. He has wounded Love. This is the horror of all sin.
All sin is deeper than the breaking of a moral law or the rejection of a truth of faith. Sin is always an offense against Jesus who is Truth. Sin is always personal. But every sin we commit in our weakness becomes an occasion for Jesus, bound and suffering, to turn his gaze to us. Before the face of Christ, no excuse stands. In the light of his love, our deeds are revealed for what they are. Jesus looks at Peter. Peter acknowledges his sin to himself. Immediately, “he went outside and wept bitterly” (Lk 22:62).
Peter is broken. Shattered. Sobbing. Like a mourner at the grave, he bemoans the emptiness in his heart. All the while his mind rehearses the many favors and tokens of friendship Jesus had given him. His home in Capernaum was Jesus’ headquarters for his Galilean ministry. The raising of Jairus’ daughter. The Transfiguration. The agony in the garden. Three privileged moments with Jesus. Jesus chose to keep Peter close to himself. How far Peter has distanced himself from Jesus!
Peter, placed above the others, has fallen so low. What a comfort to us lesser disciples. He fell. Yet Jesus still looks at him with love. This is the reason for Peter’s bitter tears. No self-pity. No mere remorse. But true contrition. Peter could deny Jesus at a distance. But when he is close enough for Jesus to look at him, he can no longer stand apart. How much better our lives would be if we were to always live in the presence of the Lord.
Judas had betrayed Jesus. Then he went out and hanged himself. Peter denied Jesus. Then he went out and wept bitterly. Judas had remorse; Peter, repentance. Judas realized he made a mistake. He misjudged the situation. He had tried to be in control. He wanted to force Jesus to be a political Messiah. But he could not. He failed. Peter realized that he had betrayed love. He had not let Jesus make him the man that Jesus wanted him to be. Judas turned in on himself and despaired. Peter turned to the Lord and repented. For one, death. For the other, a whole new life.
Peter is the first disciple mentioned in the Gospel of Mark. He is also the last named. He shows both the beginning and the end of our following of Jesus. We move from accepting Jesus’ call, through times of faith and failure, to the moment when we entrust all that we are to his grace. Discipleship is “not a triumphal march but a journey marked daily by suffering and love, trials and faithfulness” (Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience, May 24, 2006).
The story of Peter’s denial is gospel. It is the truth that, despite our best intentions and oft-repeated confessions of love, we sin like Peter. But our salvation does not depend on our good works. God is faithful. He redeems us in Christ. The Cross is God’s answer to all human sin. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone’s faults against them, but entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19).
From the likes of us who are sinners redeemed in the suffering of Jesus, God builds up his Church on earth so that the Church will always sound the note of a love that is patient, bears all things, forgives and never fails ( cf. 1 Cor 13:4-8). The Church is sent not to shout moral truths to a weak and sleeping society. She is not called to strike out at sinners with moral indignation that belittles a single person. Rather, through her fidelity to the gospel and its truth in her courageous preaching and heroic witness, she is called to bring the sinner and society face to face to the Savior whose look of love can melt sin away and move the hardest heart to tears.