At the Last Supper, as is written in today’s Gospel, St. Peter confidently proclaimed to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you” (Jn 13:37). He surely meant it, but martyrdom is easier intended than done. The possibility of persecution put fear into Peter’s heart and made his weakness manifest. Within mere hours of his promise, Peter denied Jesus three times. As Jesus hung on the cross, Peter hid elsewhere. At Jesus’ weakest hour, Peter failed him. It was shameful.
Savonarola, the great Florentine Dominican preacher, highlights the extraordinary context of this deed in his meditation on the Miserere (Psalm 51):
My own strength does not suffice to resist the old serpent and to prevail against him. St. Peter’s example has taught me the weakness of human nature. He saw Thee, Lord Jesus, and lived with Thee as a friend; he beheld Thy glory on the mountain at Thy transfiguration; he heard the voice of Thy Father; he was an eye-witness of Thy mighty works; by Thy power he himself wrought many miracles; he walked upon the waters, and listened daily to Thy sweet and powerful words; his faith appeared most ardent. … Yet, alas, when a maid servant said to him: ‘Thou art one of them,’ fear at once filled his heart and he denied Thee.
Witnessing such marvels did not give Peter the strength to overcome the temptation to deny Christ. Nevertheless, he stayed with the apostles after the crucifixion and ran to the tomb when he heard that it was empty. He did not respond to his misdeed with the despair of Judas, who, compunctious of his treason, doubted the possibility of overcoming his sin and hanged himself. Peter had the humility to recognize his wrong without letting it trap him. He turned to Christ and sought forgiveness.
Perhaps he prayed the same prayer that Savonarola was reflecting upon, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit” (Ps 51:12). Thanks to Peter’s penance, Jesus restored him to the joy of his friendship, and at Pentecost strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. It was the gift of the Holy Spirit, not Peter’s strength, that enabled him to lead the Church, spread the Gospel, and at last fulfill his promise to lay down his life for Christ. It is our place, then, to be moved by St. Peter’s example and pray for the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, that we may resist every temptation and be strengthened to always follow Christ.
Image: Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter