© Susan Prudhomme 2009
The terrible night was wearing on. Soon the sky would begin to lighten, bringing with it a day of horror.
Standing uneasily among the crowd warming themselves at the fire, Peter heard the cock crow, and in a rush, remembered Jesus’ words – “Before the cock crows . . . .” He had not believed those words, but now, suddenly, he saw that he had fulfilled them completely.
Weeping bitterly, he ran from the high priest’s courtyard and its laughing occupants. Staggering, he made his way down the dark street, reaching out blindly with his hands against the leaning walls. Their roughness scraped against his palms, drawing blood, and now and then his head would strike some protuberance. Pain, more pain – he welcomed it. It covered his self-loathing. He needed more. Because the torment of facing his betrayal, his failure – that was too much for him to bear. He could only try to submerge it in physical suffering. He craved punishment; but there was no punishment that would ever absolve him of the truth – the truth that leered out at him from the deepest recesses of his heart, the truth of who and what he really was.
Stumbling, he fell to his knees in a field, a barren, empty place full of stones and dirt. The stones – he picked one up and looked at it through his sobs. If only the mob would come and hurl them at him, stone him to death so he could find the dark oblivion he deserved. But there was no one there, only a dead tree with one bare branch. Just right for hanging. He stared at it, listening to its invitation. He had no rope.
The sky was growing light. He pushed himself back against a large rock, not wanting to be seen by passers by. Not wanting to be seen by God. Spent, his breath coming in jerky sobs, he huddled there. Against his will, his mind called back the events of the evening. The Garden, and Jesus’ tears; his own inability to watch with him. Even then, he thought in self-disgust, I failed him. And then, drawing his sword like the bully and braggart he was, and cutting off a man’s ear – and Jesus’ rebuke. It was all coming clear at last. He had done nothing right, he who thought of himself as Jesus’ right-hand man. So puffed up, so full of pride. And all the while a nothing, a weakling, a failure.
It was Judas who caused it. When Peter saw that kiss, and the soldiers behind him, a great “No!” had welled up from within him. Of all people, Judas. The one disciple whom he and all the rest had looked on with contempt, who had seemed weakest – that Judas, of all people, should wield the power to destroy it all! Because that was what Peter had seen in the moment of the kiss – all of it, Jesus’ kingship, their own elevation, the coming rightful glory – all of it destroyed by that one puny, sniveling, rat. It was insupportable, and in Peter’s sudden rage at having all his dreams, all his hope, stripped away by Judas, he had forgotten all about Jesus and given himself over to his lust for revenge.
Judas. The rage began to boil up again. He wanted it to. It let him aim his disgust away from himself. But no. Jesus had intervened. He would not allow it. Instead, he had said, “Before the cock crows . . . .” Once again, Peter crumpled. Who was puny, who was sniveling, who the rat? It was himself. He was no better than Judas. Well, so be it. Now he knew. After a time, he took a deep breath, the first since leaving the high priest’s courtyard.
As he rested there, a numb, despairing peace settled over him. He looked up at the tree again, with its bare, inviting branch. No. It would not have him. The anguish of self-knowledge had come to him, washed over him like a tidal wave, and he had survived. The truth was a part of him now, he realized. Painful though it was, he had no need to flee from it.
After a time, he pulled himself slowly up and brushed some of the dirt from his clothes. Where should he go? He had no home in Jerusalem, only the upper room they had used for Passover. Would the others be there? How could he face them? They would expect him to lead them, believe, as always, that his bravado was real authority. Well, they would have to see. It had all been bluster, with no substance behind it. He was no longer the man they had known. Never had been, really.
One or two were there when he arrived. They looked up expectantly when he entered, but he could not even meet their eyes. Through that long day, the rest straggled in, each giving what news they had – Jesus before Pilate, Jesus scourged, Jesus carrying the cross. The reports lashed Peter like whips. Jesus. His Lord. His Master. And he, helpless and cowering. A sudden earthquake rocked the building, and the sky darkened outside, adding to their terror and confusion. Finally John came, bringing Jesus’ mother, and told them of the end, and that Jesus’ body had been laid in the tomb of a stranger.
Peter sat against a wall, knees drawn up, hands over his face. The others glanced his way often, hoping for some show of his old grandiosity to pump them up, give them courage, but none came. Quiet, frightened discussions of what their danger was and how they should protect themselves started up here and there, but subsided in disagreement and indecision. Now and then someone would crouch before him and try to rouse him to help, but he pushed them away roughly and turned his face, tears flowing silently down his cheeks.
They expected the soldiers would be coming for them. Some thought they would be safer leaving town singly, returning to their fishing boats and families. Peter thought so, too, but as he sat there listening to their arguments, a new certainty had begun growing in him. Their safety was not the most important thing. They could be arrested and even executed like Jesus, yes. That was a terrible thought, but there was something even worse, something Peter had already confronted. To save their own lives by creeping away, Peter knew, would be to deny the Truth they had seen in Jesus. What he was enduring had shown him that would be a living death far worse than mere physical demise. He had suffered the anguish and sting of it. Still did.
As he began finally to speak, they were taken aback at the new gentleness in his voice, the meekness in his attitude. But they listened, and heard his quiet conviction. Yes. They saw they must stay together, face together whatever was to come.
Even with the new decision, the next few days were full of fear and confusion. Peter, after convincing them to remain, retreated once more into his darkness. He sat strangely quiet in a corner, his face filled with pain. The others milled around miserably, not knowing how to proceed except to remain hidden, jumping at every sound, expecting to hear the soldiers’ boots on the stairs. Occasional bickering broke out as one or another tried to put forward a plan, and the rest argued it down. They often looked toward Peter, but he remained so sunk in grief that they left him alone.
On the third day, the women ventured out with their spices and linen, and came running back with wild tales of the tomb being empty, appearances of angels, and even of having seen Jesus returned to life. Most of the men, worn out with fearful speculation and ill-conceived plans, scoffed at them, but John jumped up and ran, heedless of danger, out the door. Peter, impelled by a deep and despairing need to know it all, no matter what, followed him to the tomb. It was empty. John believed immediately Jesus had risen, but Peter did not know what to think.
In the days that followed, there were other reports – two disciples who finally decided to return home came back saying they had seen Jesus as they walked toward their village. When Jesus appeared in the upper room, the others crowded around, reaching out to him. But Peter hung back, ashamed and still afraid to credit the vision.
Finally they had to leave. The owner of their room had been more than generous in allowing them to stay, but they posed a risk for him and he wanted them gone. They couldn’t blame him. On returning home to Galilee, they had spent a night fishing, comforted by the familiar work on the familiar lake, but had caught nothing. They were returning home dispirited when, as they approached the land, a man called out to them from shore to let down their nets one more time. The old Peter would have scorned to take direction from a stranger, but the new Peter merely shrugged and listlessly signaled to let down the nets.
The catch was tremendous, spurring them all to sudden action with the net. Then John, who had believed at the tomb, cried, “It is the Lord!” The miraculous catch, and the certainty in his voice, finally pierced the veil that had hung between Peter and hope. Dropping the net and pulling on his clothes, he jumped from the boat and waded to the shore, his heart in his throat. Could it be? Was it the Lord? But if it was, how could he face him?
How could he not?
He reached the shore and dragged himself out of the water, falling to his knees at Jesus’ feet, his sobs wracking his body. Jesus, looking down, loved him. All these men of His had been through a terrifying time, and he wanted to comfort and console them. Peter, He knew, had endured the worst, but in his suffering had proved himself. In knowing his weakness, he had become truly strong, ready for the tasks of leadership that lay ahead. And, yes, even for his own martyrdom. Almost. Jesus signaled him to walk a little way with him:
“Peter, do you love me?” With every repetition of question and answer, and every command to “Feed my lambs,” a quiet strength and confidence flowed into Peter. A new sense of purpose was forming. He heard the prediction of his death with solemn acceptance. Jesus looked closely at him again. Now he was ready. The final command came: