by Fr. Daren J. Zehnle
As we continue our journey with Peter through these holy days, let us reflect briefly on Peter's triple denial of Jesus.
First, the maid, who was the gatekeeper, and, second, the group keeping warm by the fire, asked if he was one of Jesus' disciples (cf. John 18:17, 25). To both, Peter said, "I am not" (John 18:17, 25).
With these three words, Peter effectively said, "He is not my teacher. I have not learned from him. I have not followed him these past three years. I have not witnessed his miracles. I have not experienced his love."
How often have you and I effectively said the same?
What must Peter have felt as he spoke those words? The first time he surely said them hastily and almost under his breath, simply wanting not to be noticed, perhaps not quite realizing what he said. The second time he must surely have known what he said, hesitatingly and with much anguish.
Earlier in the evening, he insisted, "Master, why can't I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you" (John 13:37). Not long afterwards he demonstrated his readiness and his love when he cut off Malchus' ear (cf. John 18:10).
Peter's love for Jesus brought him inside the courtyard of the high priest, presumably as far as he would be let in since he was not known there as was John.
Peter had come so close to Jesus and yet remained so far from him, not simply physically but interiorly, as well.
"I am not," he said. Is not Peter's denial of Jesus, in one sense, worse than Judas' betrayal of him? Judas did not deny knowing Jesus; rather, he failed to see the truth of Jesus' identity. Peter, on the other hand, denied knowing Jesus, but recognized Jesus' identity as the Son of the living God (cf. Matthew 16:16). Judas, then, betrayed him whom he did not truly know; Peter betrayed him whom he truly knew.
Finally, Peter denies even being with Jesus in the garden. Peter's love gave way to fear and in that moment when the cock crowed. Saint Luke gives us a detail of this third denial that Saint John does not: "Just as he was saying this the cock crowed, and the Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord… He went out and began to weep bitterly" (Luke 22:60-62).
In that one look into the eyes of Jesus, Peter remembered every moment of his friendship with Jesus over the last three years and everything he had said to Jesus and Jesus to him.
But all of these words, all of these events were, in Jesus' eyes, nothing other than a story of love, and for the first time Peter understood, even saw, how much Jesus loved him, how great a friend he was. The words of his denial – "I do not know the man" – were reflected in the Master's eyes, so full of love and suffering, and fell back into Peter's heart like salt on a wound. He had never truly loved the love of Jesus, and he measured within his own heart all of the solitude, all of the abandonment of his only Friend and Father. No, it was not the Jews, it was not the Romans who wounded Jesus that night, but him, Peter! The abandonment of friends is a wound more painful than the hostility of enemies (Mauro-Giuseppi Lepori, Simon, Called Peter: In the Company of a Man in Search of God. Trans. Matthew Sherry (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2010), 105.).
How often have you and I denied any knowledge through our thoughts and actions? How often have we wounded and abandoned him?
Dear brothers and sisters, on this day, made good by the love of God in Christ Jesus, let us endeavor all the more to give ourselves entirely to him, that with Peter, we might come to truly love the love of Jesus. Amen.
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