There is always so much to contemplate in the Scriptural readings for Holy Week.
This year, I found myself focusing on Peter’s denial of Jesus—and its lesson for us. It is really, when you think about it, another passion story, another story of suffering, death, and resurrection—one that all of us can probably relate to situations in our own lives.
Think of what Peter went through—beginning with Jesus telling him, in front of all the other apostles, that “this very night before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.”
How must that have felt! Jesus, to whom he had devoted his life, his entire being; in whom he had absolute faith and trust; Jesus, whom he loved with all his heart and soul, now believes—and tells the others—that Peter will deny Him in His terrible hour of trial.
How deep, how searing, the pain and hurt Peter must have felt, as he stammered in reply, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.”
Who can doubt that in that moment Peter meant what he had said, and believed with all his heart that he would never deny the one he had proclaimed “the Christ, the son of the living God.”
And then, only hours later, he did just that—denying Jesus in order to save himself. And not once, but three separate times! Given two subsequent chances to overcome his fear, and stand up for Jesus, he instead doubled and tripled down, as we say today, repeating his denials ever more vehemently.
Then the cock crowed—and Peter “went out and began to weep bitterly,” as Matthew’s Gospel tells it.
He must have felt as though he were suffering death; not physical death, but something far worse: death of the spirit. For in denying Jesus, he had denied everything he had come to believe, that which gave his life, indeed life itself, its only true meaning. He had denied the Way, the Truth, and the Life; he had denied the Son of the living God; and he had thereby denied the transcendent meaning of his own existence.
Yet, though he had succumbed to weakness, Peter had in fact never stopped believing. As he had done at other times after Jesus had rebuked him, he remained faithful. He stayed with the apostles, saw the empty tomb, and encountered the risen Christ. And then came the resurrection: Pentecost, when Peter, along with the other apostles, received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the courage they would need to proclaim the Gospel in the face of unrelenting persecution. And ultimately, Peter would fulfill his promise to Jesus, that he would remain faithful “though I should have to die” for Christ.
Surely, all of us can relate to Peter’s succumbing to weakness, because we all have our own human weaknesses. Some manifest themselves in our personal lives: treating others badly, acting selfishly or pridefully, indulging various sinful desires, or just failing to maintain a healthy prayer life and keep our lives centered in God.
Or perhaps we fail in a way similar to Peter: allowing fear and weakness to prevent us from standing up for our beliefs, or against cruel persecution of another. Maybe we are silent—or even join in—when our Catholic faith is ridiculed, rather than risk being socially ostracized. Maybe back in our school years, we failed to speak up for the kid who was being bullied, afraid of being targeted ourselves; and now we repeat that behavior, refusing to confront cancel culture bullies and their media allies as they use vicious smears to destroy the reputations, livelihoods, and even lives of those who dare to differ with them.
In all of these areas, we may be aware of our shortcomings, and determined to change. But as we continue to repeat the same failings, it is easy to despair of our ability to overcome our weaknesses and improve ourselves. That is where the example of St. Peter can serve us.
Christ did not choose Peter because he was perfect. Far from it. Peter repeatedly fell short and was rebuked by Jesus. But he persevered, allowing Jesus to work through him, to strengthen him; until finally—after suffering the devastation of his greatest failing, his denial of Christ—he opened himself to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and truly became the rock upon which Jesus would build His Church.
And so we are called to persevere, in faith, through our repeated failings and shortcomings; allowing ourselves, like Peter, to be fortified by the Holy Spirit in overcoming our weaknesses, resisting temptation to sin, and finding the courage to stand up in defense of our faith, our Church, and all who are unjustly persecuted.