The Denial of Peter

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

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

At the Last Supper, Jesus – knowing his imminent crucifixion – tells Peter that he would deny him three times before the cock crows. Peter does not understand why Jesus says this. The next day, Jesus is arrested, badly beaten and is being taken to Golgotha to be killed by crucifixion. The police look for his followers to arrest and kill. A Jewish woman identifies Peter as one of the followers of Jesus. Afraid of his own death, Peter says, “Woman, I don’t know him.” Twice more on that hot afternoon, as the wounded Jesus is being taken to Golgotha, Peter is identified as a follower of Jesus, but denies it. The cock crows.

“And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him – ‘Before the cock crows, thou shalt deny me thrice’. And Peter went out, and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61, 62).

“Erbarme dich” (“Have mercy”) is an aria from Bach’s rendition of St. Matthew’s Passion in the early 18th century, about 300 years from today. It puts to music Peter’s words of repentance when he realises that he has not been true to himself and has denied his truth, for his security. Legend has it that Peter repented all his life for his denial of Jesus and on the skin of his face channels of tears became marked.

Erbarme dich expresses a deep longing for the beautiful, a longing that is painfully aware of a hole in one’s own soul – a hole that can only be fulfilled by the grace of the holy. Bach’s piece is not the expression of a sorrow that is afraid of itself and seeks relief in attachments to people, activities or substances. It is an expression of a sorrow that accepts its unfathomable and overwhelming depths, collects them and offers them up to God – “this is all I have, and I long for you to come to me”. This total acceptance of his condition makes the artist not merely long for the beautiful, but attain it. Sorrow is transformed into beauty.

Peter is a prototype for the human being who realises that he suffers because he lives in denial of the divine presence within him. This realisation gives him a taste of the sacred, a taste so profound that the rest of his being collects itself together and calls out for God to accept him, and forgive him despite his life of denial. From a spiritual perspective, this sorrow of the realisation of one’s distance from God becomes the archetype of all sorrows in the world. Further, the total acceptance of one’s sorrow and the offering of it to the sacred is a model for the alchemy through which suffering begets meaning.

The Denial of Peter - Caravaggio

The Denial of Peter – Caravaggio

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~ by tdcatss on May 20, 2013.

3 Responses to “The Denial of Peter”

  1. Really beautiful, Kaif .. thank you!

  2. it’s really interesting.. i especially find the conclusion meaningful..

  3. thanks Debbie and Karan

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