What follows is a fictionalised retelling of the denial of St. Peter, in the Jewish Midrash tradition. It is based on Scriptural accounts, but also on the visions given to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, which she describes in her work: ‘The Dolorous Passion of the Lord’. To read the full thing, please click the “Read More” button at the bottom of the post.
If there’s one thing Peter cannot suffer, it’s the sound of women weeping.
Even after so many years of marriage he still doesn’t understand them, nor particularly enjoy their company. Truly, if the weaker sex cannot control themselves they have no business following Messiah, although he has learned better than to say as much – particularly around the Lord himself. Jesus has always seemed unusually fond of women and the ones of ill repute seem to be his favourites, although neither Peter nor anyone else has ever seen him act dishonourably.
It’s one of those wretched creatures who is weeping now, as they gather in the Upper Room to celebrate the Paschal Supper. Mary, the one from Magdala, and Peter can see the effort she’s making to contain her tears, the embarrassment on her face that she’s unable to do so. Tonight is significant, he isn’t sure why, but something in the Lord’s manner is setting all of their nerves on edge, and the Magdalene’s weeping might just be the last straw. Silently, he finds himself repeating an oft-said prayer from the Synagogue: I thank thee, Lord, that thou hast not made me a Gentile dog nor a woman.
He’s about to say something, tell her to pull herself together, but it’s almost time to sit at table and the women leave, ushered away along with the Lord’s mother (Peter doesn’t mind her, really), to another building. God is merciful.
Before they can eat, their feet must be washed, and they sit, waiting for the servant whose unhappy duty it will be to perform this disgusting task.
But the servant doesn’t come, and Peter wonders whether he should go and call for someone. Then he sees Jesus calmly removing his outer garment and wrapping a towel around his waist. When he takes the basin and the water and begins to perform the task himself, it’s all Peter can do to keep from leaping to his feet in protest. The only thing that prevents him from doing so is experience: he’s learned the hard way that once the Lord decides to do something, it’s best not to try to dissuade him.
Jesus looks tired, as though he hasn’t slept, but he works unhurriedly, calmly, quietly. Peter tries to temper his zeal, but then it’s his turn, and the sight of the Lord kneeling before him like the lowest of servants is too much. He jerks his foot instinctively back, almost upsetting the basin in the process: “No, Lord!”
A murmur ripples through the twelve and Peter can feel their eyes upon him. His own attention is fixed on Jesus, however, who is looking at him with that steady, unsettling gaze of his. Peter falters. “You – you shall never wash my feet,” he says at length, emphatically, as though it’s the final word.
Perhaps he ought to know better by now.
Jesus finally breaks eye contact with a sigh, his shoulders slumping. “Peter,” he says, before looking up again. “I tell you the truth: unless I wash your feet then you have no part with me.”
Peter folds his arms obstinately. “Then not only my feet, Lord – my hands and my head, too!”
Jesus manages just a hint of a sad smile then, says something enigmatic about not needing to be washed once you’ve taken a bath, and Peter yields, although reluctantly. Then it’s done, and the Lord is working his way down the line. When he gets to Judas his expression turns to one of pain and he says something inaudible. Peter can’t say for sure, but it looks like he’s pleading.
Judas shifts in his seat, not wanting to listen, and tries to strike up a conversation with John. Zeal for his Lord’s honour wells up within him and, once again, Peter can’t help himself: “Judas! The Master is speaking to you!”
Judas, realising he’s been rumbled, clears his throat and turns back to the Lord, muttering something dismissive while Peter glares at him.
At supper they eat hurriedly; no-one is really hungry. Jesus’ dark brown eyes cast around the table at his disciples and there’s a sadness in them which Peter can’t recall ever having seen before. When he speaks, it’s in his usual unaffected manner, but everyone listens: “Truly, I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”
A ripple of agitation runs through the group; uneasy glances are exchanged but Peter, having more presence of mind than any of them, catches John’s eyes and signals toward the Lord: ask him. John does so and Jesus gives a quiet reply, but Peter is too far away to hear it. It’s only a minute or two later, when Judas hurriedly gets up and leaves without bothering to bid them farewell, that he knows.
The little swine! Peter never liked him, always knew he wasn’t to be trusted. He’s about to get up, run after the wretch and give him what for, but Jesus’ eyes catch his in silent admonition: no, and he doesn’t dare move.
After dinner Jesus talks to them at length; Matthew and one or two others frantically scribble his words down on parchment even though nobody really understands what he’s talking about. He says it’s time for him to leave, but where he is going isn’t clear and none of their questioning helps. They sing Psalms, the Lord’s voice soaring mournfully as he leads them in worship.
Then it’s time to go.
Their breath spirals in the night air as they make their way toward the Mount of Olives, Jesus striding and the rest of them hurrying to keep up. Without slowing, he addresses them again: “You will all lose faith in me this night.”
He’s wrong. That might be true for the others, but Peter is certain it doesn’t apply to him, and tells the Lord as such.
Jesus stops in his tracks then, addressing him directly. “I tell you solemnly, this very night, before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times.”
“Even if I have to die with you,” says Peter, his voice rising to an uncomfortable volume in the silent street, “I will never disown you.”
Jesus doesn’t say anything, looks at him for a long moment during which Peter stares back, defiantly. Then he turns and walks on.
Hours later, he can’t say how long, he’s huddled beside the fire in the courtyard while Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin. He’s surrounded, but Peter can just about see him, bound like a brigand yet offering no resistance. He doesn’t understand why Jesus won’t fight back.
He keeps his head down, tries to remain inconspicuous, but it doesn’t stop people from recognising him. When he protests, his accent threatens to give him away. A third servant insists on having seen him in the garden and he finds himself shouting: “I do not know him!”
They leave him alone after that, knowing better than to upset a brawny Galilean with a booming voice, but his words must have reached inside the house because Jesus turns to look at him through the crowd.
And his expression doesn’t carry so much as a hint of anger or condemnation. Only sorrow.
Somewhere off in the distance, a cock crows.
And now it’s Peter’s turn to weep.
by Lucy Stothard