Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I Do Not Know the Man

St Peter is one of my favorite apostles, because he is not a “plaster saint.” The evangelists have not papered over his faults, and so he is one of the most genuine and believable figures in the Bible. He was headstrong, impulsive, prone to speaking before thinking, and at a critical moment he not only broke a public promise but vehemently denied his beloved Lord.

But it is not faults as such that make him attractive, but his response to grace in the midst of them. He always accepted correction or even rebuke when the Lord gave it, and he repented wholeheartedly when he recognized his sin. The incidents of his life and relationship to Christ are not, however, presented merely as a character portrait, but as a mirror of our own struggles, a guide for the healing of our own faults.

St Peter’s lamentation (after his denial of Christ) in one of our liturgical texts from Holy Week puts it succinctly, and this could be our own general confession: “I said I would keep the faith, and I have not kept it.” Is not this the essence of every confession of sin? Can we not all make these words our own?

Shortly before the Lord’s passion, Peter boasted: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” A few hours later he insisted: “I do not know the man.” It may be that the same cycle plays out in our own lives. When we’re feeling spiritually strong or secure or joyful, when our spiritual awareness seems heightened, and in general when things are going well for us, we may (at least implicitly) boast that we would never deny our Lord, never turn away from Him or do anything that seriously grieves or offends Him. But when we have been weakened by fatigue, illness, or relentless temptations, when we lose the awareness of his presence or when things suddenly start going wrong all at once, increasing our stress and frustration—and perhaps our suspicion that He is not, after all, hearing our prayers—we say or do things that are translated thus: “I do not know the man.”

It’s not that we hate God or have become apostates, any more than Peter did, but like him we lose courage at the time of trial, or when we sense our well-being threatened, or when we just can’t hide our inner cowardice anymore. But there’s a remedy for our denials, and it is called repentance. St Luke recounts an element in the story which the others don’t, and which makes it all the more dramatic: after the third denial, the Lord looked at Peter, and he remembered Jesus’ prophecy and began to weep bitterly. The Lord did not need to say “I told you so,” or anything else. The combination of pain and pity in his eyes was enough to pierce the heart of the apostle like a two-edged sword, tearing open the floodgate of tears.

There are times when we may perceive that look of Jesus after we have denied Him through sin. We feel its penetrating heat and we know we have done what is displeasing in his sight. The only appropriate response from someone who loves Him is tears and repentance. Yet the Lord does not wish merely to bring us to our knees in shame or self-reproach. He wants to renew us by his love. Recently I came across a text in our liturgy that is rather unusual. Generally in penitential texts we pray for tears of repentance or sorrow. But in this text we pray for “tears of healing.” That outward release from an inwardly contrite heart not only expresses sorrow, it already begins to soothe the self-inflicted wound resulting from sin.

Regrettably, we probably all too often have been caught in that cycle of “I will not deny You…I do not know the man,” but in this our example is not Judas but Peter. Judas despaired of mercy and took matters into his own hands. Peter sought mercy with tears, not because he thought he deserved it, but because his heart was too big to simply walk away. With vehemence he denied Christ, and with equal passion he wept over his denial—and so the Lord’s look was not only one of poignant reproach but also of infinite mercy, for He learned from his Father how to welcome prodigal sons.

So we too must always return to the Lord, no matter how often or grievously we have denied Him, shedding tears of repentance—and of healing—for we know that his mercy endures forever. Then at last, despite all the denials, the falls, the misdirected energies, we can look back over our lives in the presence of the risen Lord and say to Him what the endearingly forthright Peter said to Him over a charcoal fire by the sea: “Lord, you know that I love You.”