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Gerard van Honthorst's "St. Peter Penitent"

We are often surprised by our own failings. God, who knows our fallenness, is not: he loves us not because we are good, but in order to make us good.

Justice, that beautiful and desirable thing, is a dangerous concept for fallen mortals. We rightly desire justice – in our families, at work, and in our public life. We have a strong propensity to seek it. Among the first and most persistent moral assertions of small children is the aggrieved cry: “That’s not fair!” We are naturally angered by injustice. Yet, at the same time, we find that we need to walk carefully around the noble but stark contours of that concept. We dare not ask for justice from God: if he deals with us justly, we are doomed. “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church;” such is our prayer each time we celebrate and attend the Mass. The Psalmist prays, “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive?” The answer, of course, is no one. The Psalm continues: “But with you is found forgiveness; for this we revere you” (Psalm 130). Conscious of our sinfulness and distressed by its consequences, we call upon God not first for justice, but for mercy.

This cry for forgiveness is not unique to Christians or Jews. It is found in all the religions of the world. Knowing our guilt, the human race has felt the need to propitiate the gods, to offer sacrifice, to avoid hubris, to fear offending heaven. It has been the unique and dubious achievement of our proud age to declare that we are not guilty and that there is no God from whom we need to seek mercy: "Should there be a God at all, a doubtful proposition," we tell ourselves, "he is a distant grandfatherly sort of figure who wouldn’t harm a fly. It is therefore up to us to construct a just world by the exercise of our own fine minds and pure souls."

When this sea change from pleading for God’s mercy to relying on human justice began to be imposed upon our civilization following the French Revolution, the revolutionaries, knowing that they needed an arresting symbol to compete with the imaginative force of Christian churches, erected huge and impressive structures that they called “Palaces of Justice.” Christians had always had their courts of justice, as well, and they honored what went on in them, developing a sophisticated body of juridical practice. They were too wise to think that they could sustain a just social order without divine help, however, and they knew that they would need a constant stream of mercy to put right the injustice in which they were inevitably implicated. They did not make their seats of justice the center of their world. Herein lies the difference: from an altar of gracious mercy at the heart of every village and town, lifting its spire of hope toward heaven and ringing its bells as a reminder of the merciful gift of God, we went to imposing and stolid edifices of human prowess and accomplishment, based on the self-confident claim that human justice could and would be administered, and that human society would be perfected here and now, by our own efforts.

Where has this change left us? Has the turn from divine mercy to human justice gained for us the glorious society for which the revolutionaries had hoped? The question answers itself, and in a ghastly way. Modern utopians insisting on human justice have been the great mass murderers of history, and the societies they have fashioned, when they have been given the opportunity, have been the cruelest and most unjust known to humanity. One need not chronicle the horrors of the last hundred years; they are notorious and have not yet completed their course. That road leads to a dead-end – literally.

As we face our own fallenness and are grieved by our denials and our sins, we need to remember the gaze of Christ upon us, the same clear and intent gaze that he directed at Peter in the midst of Peter’s denials…

Christians know (or should know) better than this, but we are often influenced by the assumptions of the culture in which we live. We unconsciously pick up the attitudes of the wider world. One of these attitudes is the working assumption, often unnoticed beneath the surface of our minds and activities, that we are not fallen, and that the world is not under the curse of Adam. We know well enough that this is not true, that the world needs a savior and cannot save itself; however, that knowledge does not always work its way fully into our stance toward the world and toward others. We can subtly begin to expect that things should go well for me, that people ought to treat me fairly, that the world is by nature a just place, and when we run up against the real fallenness of things, we grow surprised or perplexed, and we become offended or discouraged: all of these responses make clear that to one degree or another that we are in the grip of an illusion.

Notice how different the attitude of Christ is. Watch him as he makes his way among a fallen race. He himself, unique in this, is truly and perfectly just, God himself among us. He treats everyone he meets with perfect love, with no hint of selfishness; he renders to each his or her due; he takes nothing that belongs to others; he never gossips or slanders, he tells no lies, speaking only the truth; he gives of himself with great generosity. He is the authentically Just One. What kind of response does he get? A minority are delighted, changed, and grateful, though even among those there are difficulties: his own picked men fail him and run away in his hour of greatest need. He is treated by the majority with hostility, indifference, or contempt, and after a protracted conflict with those who unfairly oppose him, he is forcibly taken captive, tortured, tried in a kangaroo court and put to a criminal’s death. He is treated with the greatest injustice and ingratitude anyone has ever received. Never in human history has so much goodness been met with so much evil.

Yet we never see Jesus irritated or complaining about this. Being truth himself, he has no illusions about the state of the world he has come to save, or about the “goodness” of those among whom he is ministering. He knows he has entered a world dominated by sin, and he is not surprised to find sinners. “What man of you,” he asks, “if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9-11)! “If you who are evil…” Jesus knows he is dealing with minds and hearts hardened to truth and goodness, and he expects regularly to be treated unfairly. He knows that he is light entering a zone of darkness, and he is unfazed to find that the darkness wars against him. True, he grieves over the hardness of the Pharisees' hearts; he laments over an unbelieving Jerusalem; he weeps at the grave of Lazarus. However, he does not get angry when others mistreat him, and we never hear him mutter against the ingratitude or injustice he faces. This is not because he does not see how wrong it is: he knows and feels the evils of the world more keenly than anyone ever has. It is rather because he has accepted the fallen nature of the humans among whom he is living, even while he has come to transform them. He knows that it was the Father’s will to send him to a sinful race. His anger is expressed, not toward the sinful, but toward those who would not acknowledge their sinfulness. He came, as he himself said, to save sinners, not the self-righteous.

The difference of our own attitude towards the fallenness of the human race can be seen by the wearisome prevalence of offended people among us. How easily we are offended by a remark, a belief, even a lane-change on the highway. Should a complaint be raised that a comment or a belief or a mode of behavior is offensive, there is nothing more to be said. All are supposed to stop in their tracks and be shocked by the strange spectacle of an offended human and bow and scrape to remove the offending blot. It is a sure sign of the pride of our age, this readiness to take offense. Humble people are not easily offended, not because they are too frightened or too weakly complacent to do anything about it, but because they are not surprised. For the same reason, the humble person is very ready to ask forgiveness of others and to give forgiveness to those who ask, knowing that asking and receiving forgiveness is the only possible way for fallen humans to keep justice alive and to keep their relationships from rusting and corroding.

The great masters of the spiritual life have often pointed to this truth. They note that those who are surprised or made hopeless by their sins are in the grip of blindness about themselves. How often we say to ourselves “I can’t believe I did that!” or “I don’t know what I was thinking when I made that nasty comment!” or “I’ve been thinking such nasty thoughts; it’s so unlike me!” We can be sure that God has never thought those things about us when he sees our behavior. He is never surprised by our sins, our lies, our resentments, our lusts, and our betrayals. He never says to us: “I can’t believe you did that!” The reason is that he is not caught and hemmed in, as we are, by our illusions about ourselves. He knows us too well for that. He loves us, not because we are so good, but in order to make us good, to bring us back to the goodness he originally intended.

Being truth himself, he has no illusions about the state of the world he has come to save, or about the “goodness” of those among whom he is ministering.

Only when we have once plumbed the depths of our own fallenness can we learn to deal rightly with those around us: our friends, our husbands and wives, our co-workers, our children, our fellow believers. Only when we have once learned to face squarely our own sinfulness can we face with equanimity the sinfulness of others. “Hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye” (Matthew 7:5).

Does this acceptance of our fallen state leave us disconsolate and discouraged in the face of evil, or apathetic in its presence? Far from it. No one was more opposed to sin than Christ – no one has ever hated evil as he did. St. John tells us that the reason the Son of God appeared among us was precisely to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Like any good doctor, the Divine Physician begins his treatment with an unvarnished view of the condition of his patients. What would we think of a doctor who avoided a clear and honest diagnosis of the disease? What hope for a cure would there be if the treatment did not begin with a frank assessment of the nature of the wound? Who would go to a hospital where the staff was surprised and shocked by illness? So it is among us. Christ is our physician, and the Church is a hospital whose inmates are receiving the medicine and protocols that will heal them, one day heal them entirely. We are delighted to note our progress and that of our fellow patients, but we are not surprised to find that we, or they, continue to suffer from the lingering effects of our illness, or need regularly to deal with relapses, especially when we refuse, as we so consistently do, to take our proper medicine and to follow our physician’s orders.

Peter’s road to self-knowledge

Jesus has given us a kind of case study as to how to deal with the sins of others by his treatment of the bad behavior of his own disciples. We are shown two in particular: the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter. Judas and Peter differ in one very important respect. Judas sins out of malice: he has thought through his actions and he has carefully laid his plot. Peter sins through weakness: he does not know himself and he thinks himself better than he is, and when the test arrives he is overcome by fear and he falls. It is Jesus’s handling of Peter that is our main concern here, but it is worth noting that even in dealing with Judas, Jesus shows no particular surprise or anger. He is deeply grieved by his betrayer’s failure of love, and he has hard things to reveal about the fate of one who would perform so evil a deed, but he is not shocked by it. Once again, he makes clear that he has accepted the terms of a fallen world. In dealing with Peter, however, Jesus shows himself at every step to be a loving pastor and a realistic physician. He first calls Peter to a high office and a difficult task; he then prepares him for his own failure, walks him through that failure, and sets him on his feet again. It will be beneficial to consider how this drama of forgiveness unfolds in the Gospel.

Scene I: The first scene comes when Jesus is walking with his disciples and he asks them the fateful question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds with an answer inspired by the Father: “You are the Christ; the Son of the Living God.” Jesus then pronounces Peter’s call: to be the rock upon which the Church of Christ will be built (Matthew 16). It is a moment of terrific significance, and we can only imagine what Peter himself must have thought to be given so high and noble a call: how much it would require of him, and how tragic it would be to fail.

Scene II: The next scene comes at the Last Supper. Jesus has announced that one of his own chosen disciples would soon betray him. They all deny it, but Peter’s voice is the loudest: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away! Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” Jesus responds with words very difficult for Peter to receive: “This very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times” (Matthew 26). What was the spirit behind that prediction of Peter’s failure? Anger, or indignation? Neither. Jesus is helping Peter to see himself truly. He knows the darkness that is about to assail his chief disciple, the fall into sin and the temptation to despair that will engulf him as the gravity of his failure sets in. He knows that Peter is about to tumble into a very dark hole, so he warns him of it ahead of time, and then instructs him about how to deal with it. “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22).

At what point in this history do we find Jesus offended, perplexed, or despairing concerning his disciple? He knew well the instrument he had chosen.

Scene III: The third scene takes place in the High Priest’s courtyard. Jesus has been taken captive by his enemies and is awaiting trial, and Peter, following at a distance, is placed in sudden danger as he is accused of being Jesus’s accomplice. Peter denies it three times just as Jesus had predicted – the cock crows, and then comes a small act of immense significance: “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61). We will want to stop and try to understand the nature of that look that Jesus gave to Peter in the midst of his betrayal. It was surely not a look of dark triumph, an “I told you so!” sort of look. It was equally not a look of sad disappointment, an “I always knew that you would fail in the end” kind of look, accompanied by a mournful shake of the head. It was evidently not a look of abject self-pity, a “Woe is me abandoned by my friends” kind of look. It was rather a look that said: “Peter! Remember what I told you; don’t let your sin overwhelm you; repent of your sin, be strong, and then go and strengthen your brothers.” In the midst of his own grueling passion, with his life being threatened and all the powers of darkness coming down upon him, Jesus is not thinking of himself. He is watching out for his friend and disciple, calling him to life-giving repentance, standing with him in the face of his own weakness and fallenness, arming him against despair, and setting him once again on the path of salvation. It is a striking spectacle of the Good Shepherd in action.

Scene IV: The fourth scene occurs after the Resurrection by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus appears to the disciples who are out fishing, and Peter is so eager to see him that he leaps into the water and splashes to the shore. Three times Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?” Jesus knows that Peter loves him, but he also knows that Peter’s love needs to be strengthened and purified. He is healing the wound of Peter’s sin by drawing from him a threefold profession of love, overcoming Peter’s triple denial. With each profession of love comes a confirmation of Peter’s original call: “Feed my sheep.”

Scene V: The final scene in this drama comes through the tradition concerning Peter’s martyrdom. The story goes that the friends and disciples of Peter urged him, in the midst of Nero’s fierce persecution of Christians, to flee the city of Rome. Having learned his lesson in humility and self-knowledge, Peter strikes no heroic pose and wastes no words about how loyal he will be to Christ even if all others abandon him. He allows himself to be persuaded. On his way out of Rome he encounters Christ himself going back into the city. Falling down in worship, Peter asks Jesus, Quo vadis? “Where are you going?” Jesus tells him: “I am going to Rome to again be crucified.” Peter then realizes that Jesus is inviting him to suffer with him, and trusting the invitation rather than his own strength, he turns with joy and goes back into the city. This time there is no sinful fall, no fearful denial, but only a glorious witness to the Lordship of his beloved Master. Step by step, Jesus has brought Peter to transformation and to victory.

At what point in this history do we find Jesus offended, perplexed, or despairing concerning his disciple? He knew well the instrument he had chosen. He knew Peter’s weaknesses, his false self-perception, his too-quick readiness to trust in his own strength. He was not in the least surprised when these qualities manifested themselves. Instead, he set about transforming Peter, helping him into deeper self-awareness, and leading him to repentance and then to a place of genuine faith and firm love.

In his handling of Peter, Jesus shows us the heart of the Father toward us. As we face our own fallenness and are grieved by our denials and our sins, we need to remember the gaze of Christ upon us, the same clear and intent gaze that he directed at Peter in the midst of Peter’s denials, a look that directs us to see ourselves truly, that holds us in place against despair, that calls us to repentance, sets us back upon our feet, and renews the call we have received to serve our Lord. We must get past our own delusionary surprise and despair at our sins, repudiate our reluctance to admit our true fallen state, and find the same heart of the Father toward those among whom we live most closely. “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13). It is the only appropriate behavior for fallen but graced creatures who are walking a low road to an unimaginably high destiny.

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