"The Denial of St. Peter" by Theodoor Rombouts

“The Denial of St. Peter” by Theodoor Rombouts

If we abandon ourselves to Christ who tells us “man does not live by bread alone from on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” then it is for us to believe the revealed word and the Holy Spirit will grant us the gifts of understanding and wisdom.

Have you ever wished that you had been born in Ancient Israel and had been of the age to see Christ in person during His public ministry?

Can you imagine being a disciple of Christ and witnessing all those miracles from turning water into wine, to multiplying the loaves, to exorcising demons, to healing the sick and perhaps even the transfiguration of Christ our Lord as He speaks to the ambassadors of the Law and the Prophets?

Do you believe that if you had left everything to follow Him and after witnessing countless miracles that you would have doubts about the divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?

We are apt in this age to believe that we would be irrevocably convicted by this irrefutable evidence of experience, but we need look no further than the example of our first Pope to learn of the reality of the situation.

In Mark’s Gospel 14:27, we learn that Christ foretells of the “scattering of the sheep.” Our Lord said to the Apostles: “you will all fall away; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” Peter, being convicted in the presence of the Christ, spoke bravely when he said “even though they all fall away, I will not.” But Christ corrected Peter’s misapprehension by telling him, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But Peter vehemently protested: “if I must die with you, I will not deny you.”

In spite of Christ’s foretelling, all the disciples said the same thing. If we had been there we too would no doubt have proclaimed our fidelity to Christ, and we too would have been wrong.

Beware of Appearances

How is it that the man we know as the first pope, the “rock” upon which Holy Mother Church is built, the very man to whom our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ handed the keys of the Kingdom, how is it that he collapsed into cowardice even after witnessing the public life of Christ? The answer is simple, but obscured in this empirical age.

We are far too dependent on the shadows of experience and the mirages presented by the material world that constitute the shifting sands of appearances. Christ tells us to “judge not by appearances, but judge righteous judgement,” a task increasingly difficult in these reductionist times. And yet we still put ever more stalk in the five senses to declare what we do and do not believe. That we might say “I need to see it to believe it” is the epistemological problem of our age. To suppose that we might be invulnerable to falling out of grace with our Lord simply by our experiences with Him is to misunderstand our relationship to our Creator. It has never been and never will be our experience and perception that saves, us, but our faith in Him and only the graces freely given by God.

The Venerable Bede tells us that “the Lord foretells to His disciples what is about to happen to them, that when they have gone through it, they may not despair of salvation, but work out their repentance, and be freed.” This is the universal lesson we learn from St. Peter, that by the flesh we all fall, but in falling it is for us to get back up. We might ask “how?” It will not be by our own power, but by the submission of our wills by the supernatural virtue of Faith accompanied by the right use of reason that we may cooperate with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Rely on God, not self

It is a mistake to seek material perfection with God by our experiences and actions, this is what the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to do. We are called to spiritual perfection, to make perfect acts of contrition and perfect submission of our wills to the will of the Father, and by these intellectual and willful acts of desiring spiritual perfection our right acts will be secured by the grace of God, not by our own power. We must decrease while He increases. We must abandon our modern notions that our five senses are the arbiters of truth and follow the lead of St. Augustine who said, “I believe it in order that I may understand.” If we abandon ourselves to Christ who tells us “man does not live by bread alone from on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” then it is for us to believe the revealed word and the Holy Spirit will grant us the gifts of understanding and wisdom.

We all betray Christ by our weakness and fallen nature. Peter and Judas suffered the same experiential frailties. Both betrayed and abandoned Christ to whom both had sworn oaths of fidelity and loyalty. There was no difference between them in their experiential weaknesses, but in their intellectual and spiritual response to their failings and to Jesus there was the greatest difference. Peter returned to Christ with a contrite heart and a humble fear of the Lord. Judas despaired by consuming hubris. Peter asked for forgiveness and Judas did not. Spiritually Peter decreased while Judas increased and their paths into the eternal seemed contrary in the end.

Christ came to us by the incarnation to reveal His plan of salvation. He came not primarily to provide empirical evidence of his existence but as an act of pure sacrificial love to demonstrate that by the undeserved gifts of Grace and Mercy, we are called spiritual perfection and it is possible. Our job is not to be materially perfect but to be honest. When we fall, we are called to see what really happened with the eye of the mind disposed to the virtue of justice and the eye of the heart purified by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Then we may act in accord with the nature of things as God intended them, to see in our own weakness, the strength of God who loves us without limits. St. Peter is indeed a role model for us. It is certain that we will fail God, it is also certain that he will welcome us home. We have but to answer a single question correctly and then cooperate with the graces that flow from that answer: “Peter do you love me?”

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