Happy St. Matthias day. But it is almost Lent, and that is what is on my mind. I have, on occasion, had to explain the sudden adjustments in the Church calendar by using the analogy of pleats in sewing a garment. We have to take pleats in Ordinary Times and again in Epiphany because Easter is a solar/lunar feast and so it moves around in the calendar. So we have to take in the year here and let it out there. Lent is upon us. Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday, a time for flipping pancakes and being shriven, that is, making confession. And burning last year’s palm fronds (found mine!). And then it is Ash Wednesday, a day of complete fast followed by the Lenten fast of no meat, dairy, or eggs. In these days of vegan pride for many it hardly matters, although I don’t consider a four-star vegan dinner the same as plain lentil stew. Cheating is the word that comes to mind!
We have zipped past the Raising of Lazareth and the dinner at the home of Lazareth, and Mary and Martha, his sisters, and the farewell discourse, and the High Priestly prayer, and have arrived suddenly at Peter outside while Jesus is on trial before the High Priests. And Peter is afraid. The regular Daily Office reading for this day (John 18:15-18, 25-27) usually leaves out a few verses. But it is a good idea to look at whatever is left out of a lection. Today it gives added reason for Peter to be afraid.
Going back to before the start of today’s reading we find Jesus in the garden. In John there is no narrative of Jesus praying to his Father, perhaps to be freed from this deed, nor the exchange with those of his disciples who were with him. John jumps right in. Jesus goes to a familiar garden and immediately Judas enters with soldiers and Temple police. And Jesus is arrested. At verse 15, Peter and another disciple follow Jesus to High Priest Annas’ house. Peter and household slaves and police are warming themselves by a charcoal fire. A woman is on duty guarding the gate. She asks Peter if he is not one of Jesus’ followers. Peter denies it. Stopping there, Peter is in an unsafe and unfamiliar place, and he probably doesn’t consider the slave woman to be important enough to be honest with, but certainly dangerous enough to identify him to someone of greater importance. He denies Jesus, which is important to us, and to Jesus. He brushes off her question, seeing “below,” to use John’s term for seeing with worldly eyes, not looking up to see with the eyes of God.
And here is the missing part. The High Priest questions Jesus about his teaching. Jesus answers that he has been open about what he taught. And for his trouble he is struck in the face by a policeman. Jesus goes on to say that if he has misspoken, charge him. If not, why was he struck? At this, Annas, a previous High Priest who still holds the title as an honorific, has Jesus bound and sent to his son-in-law, Caiaphas, the current High Priest. There is a lot of politics and legal wrangling going on. To the powerful and their underlings, Jesus was being sassy, and put in his place. Enough to further terrify Peter, who is standing just outside and in earshot. This is a little different for Peter than the exciting and spiritually uplifting life of running into the countryside to evade capture. This has just gotten real. And probably the tension in that yard around the fire has increased. Something exciting is happening in the lives of these slaves and police officers. So they step in and ask Peter twice more if he isn’t one of Jesus’ followers. Now Peter is not only being pressured, even bullied, but he remembers that he had lied before. The world is whirling around him. No, no, I am not, he proclaims twice more, and on cue, the cock crows. Peter will be forgiven, we know that. But now he is afraid. He will remain afraid, as will the rest of the remaining eleven, locking themselves in a room until well after the crucifixion.
Why ashes? Ashes are an ancient sign of mourning. Jesus begins his journey to the Cross long before his arrest. We read in various Gospels how he sets his face like flint as he approaches Jerusalem. We are told that Jesus rides into Jerusalem as a Davidic king, in simplicity, riding on a donkey, the people waving palm fronds, cheering, cheers which will turn to jeers as a new popular figure is offered to them. We receive such fronds at our churches on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, that we burn to ashes almost a year later, to mark each worshiper with the sign of the Cross. This starts Lent, the period of penance and reflection, as we prepare to walk with Jesus to the Cross, and ultimately be raised with him. As Jesus says, none of whom he has been given will be lost.
What have Peter’s stumbling denials to do with ashes and Lent? We all fall. We all deny the Christ by word or deed or sheer carelessness. We are so human. We become afraid. But if we were not given the example of Peter, how would we learn? It was necessary for Peter to be afraid, to be human, to be flawed. And to ultimately receive Jesus’ forgiveness and mission to continue his teachings, to feed Jesus’ sheep, and build a Church, the Body of Christ.
We are now in a very precarious and similar place as Peter. Not only in America but worldwide, dictators are taking power, and using it unscrupulously for their own self-aggrandizement and wealth. The poor are being ground down. The marginalized can’t grasp for the necessities of life. Our Constitution, with its core of justice and mercy, which we, as Christians, can support, is being torn to pieces. And what can we do to stop it? This is not a civil question. This is a Godly one. If we are to follow Jesus, can we not be the hands, feet, and minds of our God, to bring forth a peaceful and righteous world? We might still struggle to agree on everything, but at least we should be able to agree that skin color or nation of origin should not cause children to be shot in the street or locked up in cages. But all too often we are like Peter. It is terrifying to stand at the doorway or stare at the TV or computer screen and watch the bold and brave being marched out of their jobs or smeared or fired. Or worse. We know that it could be us. And we want to say, no, I don’t know him. Or, never mind, it will be all right in the end.
I think it will be all right in the end. God is good. But God doesn’t hand us cheap grace when Evil is feeding on our poor and helpless. Perhaps in Lent we might reflect on how we, like Peter, have stumbled, and allow God to love and forgive us, and practice how we can move toward the Light as we wait in the dark throughout the season of Lent. And to wear the cross of ashes on Wednesday to say, Yes, I do know him.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is currently at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.