In the second of his Reflections for Lent Dr Andrew Kania explores that difficult terrain most of us face in our lives at one stage or another — the feelings we have when we have been betrayed … and also how we feel when we have been guilty of betrayal. All of us can empathise with Peter — and with Jesus. Through meditation on these iconic stories we better prepare ourselves when we find ourselves cast in the position of a Peter, or a Jesus.
The betrayal in Braveheart…
In Randall Wallace's screenplay, Braveheart, we are taken back into a period of time when Scotland was a mere minion of England, and where one man, William Wallace (1270-1305) had both the vision and the courage to unite the clans in order to free his people from the yoke of Edward Longshanks (1239-1307).
In a particularly poignant part of the multi-Academy Award winning motion picture, Braveheart, Wallace meets Longshanks at the Battle of Falkirk. As the Battle is raging — and Wallace's plan seem to be coming to fruition; he turns to wave a signal to the Scottish cavalry so as to now enter the fray — but to his astonishment the Scottish nobles leave the Battle, and thus leave Wallace to face an eventual defeat. In rage, Wallace acquires a horse and pursues a detachment of English knights. Sword in hand he attacks. One of the English knights turns and orders a helmeted figured dressed in black — with no heraldry on his person or shield to advance on Wallace. The knight charges, a lance pointed at his Scottish adversary, Wallace also riding at full speed. With a crash of weaponry, the lance snaps and Wallace is thrown from his horse. The black knight turns to ride toward the vanquished enemy, Wallace lying face down on the ground.
As the knight dismounts, Wallace springs from the ground and flips the knight over him. He takes out his dagger and pulling the helmet off his unknown enemy he places the dagger against the knight's throat — only to be taken aback, on seeing the face of the man he has nearly killed. There seated in front of him, is not an English knight, but the chief of the Scottish nobles — Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), the pretender to the Scottish throne — ironically the person who would lead an independent Scotland, if Wallace's plans were to succeed.
The two men sit on a field — isolated from the battle, staring at one another. Not one word is spoken. Wallace's expression changes from deep sorrow, through to love, through to confusion, and to weariness. He has been betrayed by that one man who he has placed most of his loyalty in.
The denials of Peter…
The New Testament provides us with a rich character in the figure of St. Peter. Of all the Apostles, it is Peter that seems to often take centre stage in the discourses with Christ. Peter is the catalyst for the calling of the other fishermen; Peter attempts to walk on water; Peter is told to take his boat out once more to catch the fish; it is Peter who recognises Jesus as the Christ; it is Peter who Christ addresses at the washing of the feet; it is Peter who swears that he will not deny Christ – and will die beside Him; and it is Peter who sword in hand seeks to defend Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. There are many indications of Peter's prospective status as a leader — for He, is a man of passion, who does nothing by half; here is a man, zealous, a man almost fearsome in his conviction. Who else better to tend to Christ's sheep?
The Scriptures are not only the Word of God — they are, even for an atheist a great read; no better example of this is the shattering denial of Christ by Peter. Peter is no weakling — he has seen his Messiah taken in the manner of a brigand; and deeply in love with his Teacher, he seeks to know what will happen to Him. He follows, for he desperately wishes in some way to help — help even by his mere presence. It is for this reason that Peter's series of denials begin.
First, a servant woman recognizes Peter as one of those that she has seen with the Nazarene. In fear — Peter rejects this outright. He is scared, the sense of trepidation is building up within him — perhaps he is now considering the fact that he is a married man, with children to care for — or perhaps he is terrified of being executed. He makes his way to a gateway — only to be questioned again by another bystander. Indeed he surely is the same man who is well-known as a companion of this Jesus. No! No! Peter must have said in his mind, before the bitter words poured from out of his mouth; rejecting any association with Christ.
The tension has begun to reach a crescendo within Peter's spirit. St. Luke tells us that Peter now waits an hour. He knows Christ's prediction of betrayal well-enough; it had only be spoken a matter of hours previous. Yet his heart is beating fast — everywhere he sees the eyes of people — they pierce his soul; they silently accuse him, by their stare; for these people know in the vehemence of his denials that he is lying. A massive existential battle rages within his soul. If I die, I die — but didn't He promise that one should not give up one's soul for all the kingdoms of this world? But what if, what if He was wrong? I could die easily enough if what He said was true — but if He was wrong — then I lose; everything. He could be wrong; where are the miracles now? I cannot take a leap of faith when life is what I risk.
A further question is posed by the bystanders. A question that cuts to the very core of who Peter is as a man; a question accusatorial in its content — a barb, so sharp, as sharp as the look of a man in a mirror, who sees himself, for what he is, a coward. He must be a Gallilean — for listen to the accent. A person's accent — something that follows an individual like a shadow; wrapping each word with geographical nuance. You may speak — but your accent gives your speech connotation; it reveals underlying bias — it tells of social status; it uncovers your secrets — even secrets of association.
Peter is now completely naked — he denies; and in this final denial, he denies not only Christ; but he denies his very self. And then, in the words of St. Luke the Evangelist, words that wring out tears from all those who have betrayed a friend or a loved one out of cowardice, or lack of conviction to the Truth, and who now read this Gospel passage: "And 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.' And he went out and wept bitterly." (Luke 22: 61-62, RSV). Nothing is said between the white-eyed Peter, and the bloodied Christ. The two men look at one another; one as if He had seen His judge; the other with a deep love embalmed in sorrow.
If eyes be the mirror of the soul — so also there is a look that is exchanged between two spirits, a look that leaves nothing that has to be expressed – unsaid. In this look — both persons are naked; both are exposed for what is at the core of their present being; either virtue or guilt; joy or sorrow. The greatest pain that can be inflicted between two human beings – comes not from the striking of a lance or a whip — but in the look of a betrayer to the betrayed; for one can readily hate an enemy the more for the torment that they inflict — but how can one hate in a moment, he or she that one has borne so much love for in a tender heart. It is not easy to hate that individual who one has laid themselves naked before, and for whom one has been sacrificed. Nor yet is it so easy to be reconciled with such a person. And yet — Christ teaches us in the very pardoning of Peter — that without a belief in the forgiveness of God, no one can be reconciled to their highest nature, so as not to ever remain sitting in a pit of ashes, lifeless, listless, and craven; or worse still, dangling from a branch with feet hovering above thirty pieces of silver.
©2009 Dr Andrew Thomas Kania