Now Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came to him, saying, "You also were with Jesus of Galilee." But he denied it before them all, saying, "I do not know what you are saying." And when he had gone out to the gateway, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, "This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth." But again he denied with an oath, "I do not know the Man!" And a little later those who stood by came up and said to Peter, "Surely you also are one of them, for your speech betrays you." Then he began to curse and swear, saying, "I do not know the Man!" Immediately a rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him, "Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times." So he went out and wept bitterly.
- Matthew 26:69-75
In our current readings, it is Holy Week, and Jesus is in Jerusalem. After the Passover meal at which Jesus instituted the Eucharist, Jesus and the disciples went to the garden of Gethsemane, where He was arrested by an armed crowd sent by the chief priests and elders, as He was betrayed by Judas. And those who had laid hold of Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. But Peter followed Him at a distance to the high priest's courtyard. And he went in and sat with the servants to see the end. Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses came forward and said, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'" And the high priest arose and said to Him, "Do You answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You?" But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, "I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!" Jesus said to him, "It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, "He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?" They answered and said, "He is deserving of death." Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palms of their hands, saying, "Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?"
Now Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came to him, saying, "You also were with Jesus of Galilee." But he denied it before them all, saying, "I do not know what you are saying." And when he had gone out to the gateway, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, "This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth." But again he denied with an oath, "I do not know the Man!" And a little later those who stood by came up and said to Peter, "Surely you also are one of them, for your speech betrays you." Then he began to curse and swear, saying, "I do not know the Man!" Immediately a rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him, "Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times." So he went out and wept bitterly. Peter's denial of Christ three times comes as the fulfillment of Christ's prophecy of the night before, at the Last Supper, after which Peter vehemently insisted that he would follow Christ even unto death before doing so (see Saturday's reading). But here in the courtyard of the high priest, in the dark hours of very early morning, and while Christ is on trial, Peter denies Christ, first after a servant girl identifies him as one who was with Him. Some interpretations of this story understand Peter's testing as deeply allegorical, with the servant girl representing the temptation of Eve to Adam (Genesis 3:6). He denies Christ before those gathered there in the courtyard, perhaps representing the various forces that seek to deny Christ. He goes out to the gateway, and another servant girl identifies him as a follower of Christ. He denies more deeply, and with an oath this time. Then in front of the others there, who cite his accent as one from Galilee, Peter's denial is even more vehement, bringing curses upon himself, and immediately a rooster crowed, bringing remembrance to Peter of Jesus' word to him. In Luke's Gospel, we're told that Jesus gazed at him (Luke 22:61). My study bible cites Ambrose of Milan, who comments on Peter's bitter tears, that "through tears, what cannot be defended can be purged, for tears wash away the offense which is shameful to confess out loud." Origen notes that the tears come once Peter is outside of the courtyard, and as dawn breaks -- symbolically away from the forces of denial and in the place where light begins to shine.
My study bible notes the testing of Peter coming via the servant girls in contrast with the renewal of life that will come when it is women who are the first to "hear, believe, and proclaim" the good news of Resurrection at the tomb. What is important is the recognition of the difficulties of faith within a context of a familiar culture in which there are all kinds of temptations to be in denial of what we know spiritually. Denial can come in all sorts of forms, some of them entirely innocuous in their "normalcy." We do our every day tasks, and assume that life is separated between the spiritual and the "realistic" needs of day-to-day life. But if we really look hard at the Gospels, we see that this isn't really meant to be the case. The disciples spend all their time with Christ. Every decision Jesus makes is prefaced by prayer, many times in withdrawal Himself even from the disciples. We should be used to the idea that the "remembrance of God" isn't just reserved for special days, or for when we're in Church, but rather our days should be punctuated with time for prayer. A silent prayer can be said at any time. In fact, traditional practices, such as the Jesus prayer, are meant to be used all day, and during any kind of task. This type of prayer uses a phrase that is repeated to oneself during tasks and daily work, and also in periods of contemplative devoted prayer. The prayer takes different forms, but all are based on the phrase, "Lord have mercy." An important component of this prayer when practiced is time put aside for prayer is silence: there are periods when the silence is full, a communion. But the phrase itself is ideal for repeating at any and all times. Just as the disciples spent full-time with Christ, our prayer takes shape during any moment of our lives, and we don't have to separate out time into different parts: one for spirit, one for body, one for soul, another for the mind. Instead, we understand ourselves as integrated, with wholeness an image of the fullness of what it means to be a person. In the words of the commandment to love God (what Jesus calls the first great commandment), we use "heart, soul, mind, and strength." Peter's denial teaches us of the difficulties we face as part of our daily lives, when the pull of what is "normal" or habitual in a setting of society, culture, or other environment may draw us away from the inner truth we know for ourselves. All traditional forms of worship and spiritual practice center around shoring up the strength of faith, and it is grace that is the great Helper we call upon because this is, indeed, the world we are born into. There are all kinds of ways that we would deny Christ, whether that is to engage thoughtlessly in self-destructive practices, or forms of common behavior (such as gossip) that do harm to others and thereby our own souls, or to just "go along to get along." Peter's emotional commitment to Christ that he would never deny Him, even if it meant death, gives us all a wake-up call, a warning, about the difficulties of spiritual life and struggle. We can't simply depend upon our own emotional strength. Life's temptations are unexpectedly difficult. Particular environments and conditions can swamp us in ways we don't necessarily see or are prepared for. We rely on mercy and grace, and we need to be aware of our own vulnerability. Let us remember, also, Peter's bitter tears of repentance that "wash away the offense which is shameful to confess out loud." Peter will return to the disciples and to Christ, and become the apostle we know him to be. Our lives are meant to be understood in terms of a journey that may be filled with struggles and tests we don't expect, coupled with mercy and love and joy. Most important is the love and mercy which helps us to understand our weakness and difficulties, so that we may become strong.