In the courtyard of the High Priest, on the evening of Holy Thursday, a palpable fear will grip Peter’s heart. His Master is arrested. The powers of this world are entering into their triumph, and Peter is next in their sights.
Christ Himself foresaw this moment of crushing dread which would overwhelm his friend: “Simon, Simon,” He asserts, “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)
In a famous exchange, Peter protests, sure that he will be able to face the mob and its fury when the moment arrives: “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death,” to which Jesus answers, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:33-34)
To deny that we even know Christ – not that we love Him, or are active doing His work, or are complicit in His mission – No! – only to own that we know Him, will be the testing ground on which we will be sifted. All of us.
The power that the cancellation of goodness exerts – the fear it elicits in our hearts – is stunning.
But Christ was cancelled first. He chose to be eliminated from the earth, from the powers that be, from acceptance by the very creatures He had loved and formed from dust. Willingly. Lovingly. As the preferential path of true meaning and power in His Almighty plan.
And so, like Peter, we must confront Christ’s paradox. Everything we believe is failure and loss and waste in our lives – the good deed unnoticed, the kindness rejected, the example scorned, the love denied – is precisely the point. The point of immolation. And there, true life begins, in Christ – in His cancelled, bloodied, broken body, in His offering of self on the Cross, and in our hearts.
And what comes in return? What comes from laying down our lives with Christ? Power, strength, and the Divine Life that pour forth through us and through our silent, hidden, unseen act.
All because cancellation, and self-offering, and hidden love take place in the darkness and in the silence: behind the door of a cell block at Auschwitz; behind the grille of the Carmel of Lisieux; behind the walls of the Tower on a July day; and outside the city, with the criminals, near Jerusalem.
And in all of this, Christ knows we will need His strength. Without His prayers, “I have prayed for you” (Luke 22:32), we would not be able to do it. Because often we forget that worldly success and approval are not our goals. We work and strive and seek to be someone in this world. We seek the validation that our efforts deserve. And then, Christ chooses for us another way. His Way.
And in all of this we bear our Cross with Christ, and He with us. We must realize that the Cross is always placed on our shoulders in love. He chooses us to bear His Cross, He shares His chosen treasure with us. And we shirk the invitation. The Cross is embarrassing. The Cross is a mark of failure. And yet the Cross is the only door through which true life enters.
We hang this sign of Christ’s chosen cancellation in our churches, in our classrooms, in our homes, and around our necks. Why do so, then, if we run from its call?
As St. Maximilian Kolbe reminds us, “reverses and other crosses purify. . .us. We must have much patience with ourselves and even with our good God who tests us out of love.” He will never let the Cross crush you. When we accept it with free will, a balm comes from its precious wood.
And yet, the fear is great. It clings to us, and overwhelms, as it did Peter in the courtyard. Because there is no turning back from acknowledging Christ. The mob is merciless; its condemnation complete. We can often sense a moment of witness coming upon us, in a conversation, in the workplace, in our relationships. Here it comes. I can commit to my convictions and press forward or take the off-ramp. I need to decide. The time to choose is now. How often, I veer to the safe lane and off my course.
But always – always – Christ takes us back. He strengthens us. He hears our denial, he sees our struggle, and He looks at us with His gaze toward Peter, in power and tenderness, understanding reproach, and the call to become more with the help of His love.
And we are strengthened by His gaze. We do not despair as Judas did, because His strength is greater than our failure. We acknowledge that we need Him, that we have not defined ourselves irreversibly, as a success or failure. Everything has meaning only when we relinquish it to Him, uniting our efforts to His strength.
And then, when we offer it to Him, He acts. And we proclaim with St. Paul, “my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Christ always brings good out of evil. What is more, He brings greater good than if the evil had never existed. There is not one situation, one movement of the heart, one apparent failure, that He has not permitted. He knows. And He waits for the perfect time to make whole.
And His restoration is greater than before. His crucified Heart has gone before us. He is not in the tomb. “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death will be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” (John Donne, Holy Sonnet X) Cancelled no more, Our Lord restores us and leads us to Eternal Life.
*Image: The Denial of Saint Peter by Jusepe de Ribera, c. 1615-16 [Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini, Rome]. In content and in style, this Ribera masterpiece was modeled on Caravaggio’s painting of the same title, now in New York’s MET. (Peter is furthest to the right.)