The Way of Beauty Bitter Tears

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The sudden death of a spouse or a family member, or problems with children-these experiences can evoke bitter tears.  Betrayal of one's trust by a dear friend can prompt a similar pent-up reaction.  Such a shameful act can wreak havoc on the offended person, but the betrayer must live with his or her offense. Which brings us to Peter.

Overview of Peter's Betrayal

What drove Peter's treachery on that fateful night, shortly after boasting to Jesus: "I will never deny you?" 

It is true that Zechariah of the Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah's friends would desert him, and that he would be betrayed by a friend (Ps 41:9).  There were also predictions that others would give false witness about the Suffering Servant-Messiah. But they were in the past.  It was quite another matter for the betrayal to happen now-and by Peter, the head of the disciples.  

Did greed motivate Peter as it did Judas? Was it malice? What then? Emotions ran far ahead of his thought process. Terrified at how the events were unfolding, he chose to save his own skin.  Peter had not yet reached that level of emotional maturity that defers to reason.  Yes, he had boasted, but words are cheap.  When it came down to the particulars of accusers and accusations, of soldiers and torture, defending his beloved friend became less attractive and less pressing than protecting himself. Lacking spiritual depth, he took the road of least resistance. 

The Garden of Gethsemane

Once the supper was over, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with the Twelve but took Peter, James, and John farther into the garden to comfort him.  He told them all to stay awake and pray with him. They fell asleep.  

Peter's betrayal began to unfold first with violence. When Judas arrived with the soldiers to seize Jesus, Peter, perceiving a threat to the Master, took out his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, a servant.  Peter could afford to act the braggart. He felt safe because Jesus was at his side. 

Peter Follows Jesus at a Distance

As the guards seized Jesus for the mock trial, Peter followed events from a distance.  He warmed himself by the fire, and a servant girl recognized him as a disciple of the Nazorean.  She accused him of being Jesus' follower.  Peter pleaded ignorance: 'What do you mean?' 

A second woman also accused him of being a follower. Peter lied, "I am not his disciple." But while he was replying, Jesus was on trial answering Pilate with the truth about his identity: "I am he." 

In his monograph, A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, Fr. Raymond Brown writes that in St. John's Gospel, stress is placed on the simultaneity of Peter's denials and Jesus' self-defense.  It becomes a matter of 'I am not' versus 'I am.'  How striking the contrast!

When others accused Peter, he unleashed his rage. Most scholars agree that he cursed and swore at Jesus.  With the cock crowing at the third denial, he recalled the Lord's words: 'You will deny me three times.'

St. Luke's Gospel narrates that as Peter passed Jesus from within the temple confines, the Lord's eyes met his. Like a laser beam, they bore into Peter's entire soul.  Unable to bear the shame, he went out and wept bitterly. Never would he forget the experience.  Never would Jesus let him forget.  

Scattering in all directions, the other disciples abandoned Jesus, and with Peter, they left their Lord standing alone.  Brown notes that every Christian stands on stage as do Peter and the disciples, Pilate, his wife, and other venal characters in the Paschal drama of redemption.   

J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion: "Erbarme dich"

If you would like to experience in music Peter's denial, you need only listen to the aria, "Erbarme dich" from J.S. Bach's great St. Matthew Passion.  Peter's guilt is taken up by a solo violin that keeps grinding out the same eight-note motif over and over. Round and round, up and down they go to symbolize Peter's anguished mind, obsessed with his descent into treachery.  Shame paralyzes him. The motif expresses only one thought: "Erbarme dich, mein Gott' that is, "Have mercy, my Lord, have mercy." Or, 'What have I done; 'how could I?' How?' 'I'm so sorry; forgive me, have mercy on me, my God.'  Over and over, the words grip his soul. Through the music, he wails: 'What did I do, what did I do?' 

More in The Way of Beauty

The tears drop with a steady rhythm. The organ together with pizzicato (plucked) cellos and double basses play the drip-drip.  For a few moments the ensemble abates while the grinding motif of the violin bores more deeply into his soul: 'What have I done? Have mercy on me, my God, Erbarme dich, mein Gott.' Peter can't shake his grief. Still Bach gently treats his sorrow and repentance. 

To derive benefit from this aria, you don't need to know German.  The text is simple and repeats itself.  The music speaks for itself.  If you do not have the recording, the aria is available on YouTube.  It is one of the finest musical expressions of a soul in anguish.  The emotional tug of Bach's music on the listener springs from the recognition of dashed dreams and failed resolutions to follow Jesus as his companion and disciple without hesitation or compromise.

Text:  J.S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, 39. Aria A, "Erbarme dich"

Erbarme dich, mein Gott,
um meiner Zähren willen!
Schaue hier, Herz und Auge
weint vor dir bitterlich.
Erbarme dich, mein Gott.

Have mercy, my God,
for the sake of my tears!
See here, heart and eyes
weep bitterly before you.
Have mercy, my God.

Before Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., Cardinal-Archbishop of the Chicago Archdiocese died last year, he predicted with stark hyperbole, what a completely secularized society would mean in the future: "I expect to die in bed; my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history." 

(To be completed next week)

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