Fear and Faith

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday during which the church proclaimed the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of St. Matthew (Mt 26:36-75; 27:1-66). The days that follow Palm Sunday are known as Holy Week and culminate in the three days (triduum) of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, which ends with prayers and liturgy on Easter Sunday. The church has followed this sequence for nearly two millennia, and the Passion story has become part of the Western canon.

This Good Friday the church heard Christ’s Passion again; this time as described in the Gospel of St. John (Jn 18:1-40-19:1-42). The reading continues the Passion story with Jesus and his disciples retreating to the Garden of Gethsemane after their Passover meal. It ends in humiliation and death with his crucifixion the following day on Golgotha, the place of the “skull.” What occurs in between contains all that is pitiable in the human condition: betrayal, cowardice, fear, manipulation, perjury, mob violence, political tyranny, and abandonment by friends who had sworn allegiance to a leader only to turn their backs on him to save their hides.

I can sympathize with wanting to save your hide. When that electrical charge sears through your veins in a real threat, the first impulse is to run. That’s what all the disciples did except for Mary and some of the other women, who stayed and offered comfort where they could. On the other hand, Peter, whom Jesus handpicked to lead the group (cf., Jn 21:15-17), serves as a symbol of fear and cowardice. His denial of Jesus three times has become an archetype on a par with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and Paul’s violent persecution of the early church.

I have attended triduum services for years, but two things in particular stood out to me this year. The first was from the Matthew reading on Palm Sunday when Peter declares, “I know not the man” (Mt 26:72). He says it in reply to a servant who confronted him as they both warmed their hands by the fire outside the court of the high priest, Caiphas. When she adds for good measure, “even thy speech doth discover thee,” he begins “to curse and swear that he knew not the man” (Mt 26:73-74).

The second thing that stood out was where Peter stood as they brought Jesus first to Annas and then Caiphas. The Johannine reading on Good Friday has Peter following Jesus to the high court but stopping short, not entering but waiting outside as another disciple, “one who was known to the high priest” (Jn 18:16), went in. I can almost hear this disciple telling Peter, “Wait out here. I’ll go in and check things out. I’ll come back for you.” Peter obliged, no doubt quite willingly.

I am reminded of Joe Rogan’s comment that the important work of life is to conquer your inner bitch. I understand Peter trying to save his hide, but acting so cowardly makes me cringe. Maybe that’s because I have acted the same way at various times in my life. It’s not a pretty picture, as it isn’t in the Gospels. And this is the disciple who forms the “rock” of the new church.

I believe that courage is related to one’s attitude toward death. That is, if you are ready and willing to die, then the courageous act becomes less of a challenge. That’s if courage is a decision. I’m not sure it is. It might just be the accumulation of little acts that eventually become a habit. Aristotle thought so. But when is someone ready to die? After so many years of life? Achieving certain goals? Creating a family?

Peter was not ready to die. I don’t know anyone who is. Actually, I met a woman once who claimed to be ready, but I never believed her. Such declarations are made either out of ignorance or pride. In her case, I suspected both. But I find it fascinating that Peter’s weakness, fear, and cowardice did not prevent him from being a disciple, let alone a leader. In fact, they seemed to be a requirement similar to Paul.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:8-10).

Image credits: feature by Pisit Heng; spiral by Adam Gonzales; tomb by Simon Wood. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.” Happy Easter Sunday.

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