By: Fr. Paul Scalia
Given all the attention the successor of St. Peter has received recently, it is fitting to give particular attention to the first pope this Holy Week. Peter plays a prominent role – both inglorious and also edifying – in the drama of our Lord’s Passion. From him we learn about both sin and repentance.
First, Peter’s sin. We know that Peter followed our Lord to His place of trial and imprisonment. But St. Luke provides an important detail: “Peter was following at a distance” (Lk 22:54). We can hazard some guesses at the reason for this distance. Most likely Peter feared that if he drew too close he would be arrested and subject to the same fate as Jesus. Perhaps he feared the shame of being known as the companion of a criminal and, worse, a false messiah. Whatever the case, the distance he allows is the first step to his fall. The “plausible deniability” he hopes to create leads to denial plain and simple. Because the distance cannot remain. It has to be eliminated – either by drawing close to Jesus…or by severing the connection all together.
Watching Peter in this way helps us identify more clearly our own steps toward sin. We follow Jesus at a distance. Yes, we know we ought to be close to Him, even with Him. But we like to keep a distance between ourselves and Him. Perhaps, like Peter, we sense – rightly – that if we get too close to Him we will be subject to the same ridicule and suffering that He was. And, although we want His goodness and grace…we do not really want that sacrifice.
We want to follow Jesus, but not so close that people will think of or treat us differently. We keep a distance so that not too much will be asked of us. We can have both the satisfaction of knowing that we follow Jesus and also the pleasure of knowing we are safe from any real sacrifice.
Whatever the case, we like to maintain a little plausible deniability. And that ultimately will lead to denial. The distance becomes too great. And the evil one makes it greater. We sin, in short, because we do not want to follow Jesus closely. We want to follow Him, sure…but at a distance. Unfortunately, that distance simply provides room for the devil to exploit…and increase…and disrupt.
Peter’s fall strikes us as all the more shameful, of course, because of his profession of fidelity at the Last Supper: “Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you” (Lk 22:33). In fact, our part is far worse than Peter’s. He at least desired to do great things for our Lord. He at least professed undying loyalty, unyielding fidelity. We cannot stir ourselves to such noble sentiments. We are content with mediocre devotion and half measures. We want piety, but not holiness. Peter failed to clear the high bar he had set for himself. We, however, set the bar low and fail to clear it.
Second, Peter’s repentance. The Apostle does not provide an example only via negativa. If his fall from grace serves as a cautionary tale for us, his repentance provides a pattern to imitate. Again St. Luke gives some wonderful details: “the Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly” (Lk 22:61-62).
Notice the personal character of repentance: “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” It is the encounter with Jesus Himself, and in particular the face-to-face encounter, that stirs up the proper sorrow for sin within Peter. This glance in effect activates Peter’s conscience: he “remembered the word of the Lord…” He sees Jesus and remembers the goodness and the truth of what He had spoken. He sees Jesus and realizes at once the distance between them. And this is the essential difference between Peter and Judas. Both failed Jesus tragically. Both rued what they had done. But Peter repented to our Lord, while Judas repented to himself.
Peter also allowed the reality of his sin to hit him: “He went out and began to weep bitterly.” No rationalization or excuses. No trying to adjust reality to fit his sin. He allowed himself to be convicted and moved – to be changed.
Peter’s repentance should set the pattern for ours as well. Sin is no mere violation of a rule or policy. It is the denial of our Lord, the rejection of His Lordship in our life. It is the rebellion against His creation and His will for our good. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”
What we should seek is that encounter with Jesus that stirs the conscience and prompts repentance. We can use various tools to examine our conscience: the Ten Commandments, the twofold commandment of love, the virtues, the capital sins, etc. But whatever instrument we may use, our examination should always be done before the face of Christ. It is only in the light of His face, as Peter discovered, that we come to know both the gravity of our sin and the power of His forgiveness.
This Holy Week, then, let us learn from Peter. Let us consider our sins in light of Peter’s failure: we are following too far behind. Let us draw close to Jesus – indeed, be with Him. Likewise, let us repent of our sins after Peter’s example – seeking the face of Jesus, so that we will know our sins more clearly and experience His mercy more deeply.