Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Marienhaus, Germany
Tuesday of Holy Week
April 18, 2000
Is 49:1-6; Jn 13:21-33; 36-38
With our reflection on today’s Gospel, we will continue to try to enter into the significance of the events leading to the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord by seeing ourselves in the persons intimately associated with these mysteries. Judas is present again today, as he was yesterday, and as he will be again tomorrow. But today we will focus above all on the character and actions of St. Peter.
As we saw yesterday in our reflection Judas, it is not enough merely to be an external follower of the Lord. Judas had followed the Lord for three years, had heard him preach and teach, had seen him walk on water, still stormy seas, feed thousands, raise people from the dead, heal on countless occasions the sick, blind and lame and have mercy on countless sinners, and had even received from the Lord the power to do many of these same things himself. But none of this had made him an internal follower of the Lord. He tragically, in all of this, never truly got to know Jesus and even more tragically, never got to love him. So, too, it is possible, as we discussed yesterday, for those in religious life never to get to know and love Jesus, never to become interior disciples, even though our whole days ostensibly are spent in praying, worshipping and in serving others in his name. And I trust we have all known those who in religious and priestly life have abandoned and betrayed the Lord like Judas did.
But I suspect, hope, and believe that, even though we certainly have betrayed the Lord through sin in our own lives, we, unlike Judas, have responded to the grace of the presence of God in our lives to come to know and to love the Lord through our religious life. Without any pharisaical self-righteousness, we can thank the Lord for all of his mercy and graces so that we, unlike Judas, may strike our breasts like the publican and from that beginning grow in love and knowledge of the Lord. The parallel between us and Judas — thanks be to God — has a limit to it, at least in the fact that we, although we have too sold out the Lord, have turned to him again with confidence in his love and mercy and, unlike the son of Simon Iscariot, we at least have the God-given DESIRE to grow in love and knowledge of Jesus.
But when we turn to the example of St. Peter, whom we see up close in today’s Gospel, I think we can see ourselves much more readily. Peter was an internal disciple, someone who followed the Lord not just with his body but with his heart. He desired to know the Lord with all his mind and to love him with all his heart, soul and strength. Peter wanted to do Christ’s will. Peter wanted to follow the Lord. I think Peter really deep-down inside meant what he said that he would lay down his life for the Lord (as he ended up doing upside-down on a Cross in the Vatican valley). But Peter failed to recognize what Jesus tells him in St. Matthew’s Gospel: THAT THE SPIRIT IS INDEED WILLING BUT THE FLESH IS WEAK. Peter’s spirit did want to give himself entirely to following the Lord, but his flesh was so weak that he was willing to swear that he didn’t even know the Lord — ultimately, to APOSTASIZE — just to stay warm on the cold dark night of Jesus’ Passover! We see this happen to Peter as well in the event when Jesus was walking on water. Peter begged the Lord to give him the ability to come to him — Peter always wanted to come to the Lord and be with him — and then Peter actually began to walk on water! But as soon as he took his eyes off of the Lord, as soon as his weak flesh took account of the wind, he sank and this fisherman, who lived on that lake and who obviously had to be a good swimmer, cried out to the Lord to save him from drowning. Peter’s spirit was always willing, but his flesh so weak.
It’s no surprise, then, that if the Lord called someone like St. Peter to be the Rock on which he would build his Church, he would likewise call us to be his disciples, we, who like Peter, have willing Spirits but very weak flesh. We, like him, want to follow the Lord. We do love him. You have probably told him many times — as I have — that you would willingly lay down your life out of love for the Lord, as we have in a way in religious life. But I suspect that if we were strong enough to handle Jesus’ response, he would reply to us and our bravado: “You would willingly lay down your life for me? Amen, amen I tell you: before the cock crows tomorrow you will deny me not just three times, but thirty times three times!”
This is what the great saints realized. They lived by the statement, which has become a classic one among those very close to the Lord throughout the centuries, “But for the grace of God go I!” The great saints have recognized that, left to their own, their flesh was so weak that they were capable of betraying the Lord in almost every way. St. Philip Neri used to pray every morning: “Lord, beware of Philip today and help him lest he betray you again!” But this was their secret! This was the reason, perhaps, why the Lord was able to do such great things in them and they were able to remain so faithful. They realized, with St. Paul, that WHEN WE ARE WEAK, IT IS THEN WE ARE STRONG, that Christ’s grace is sufficient for us, for his power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12). It is when we recognize that on our own we will fail the Lord countless times, when we in our weakness turn to the Lord for strength, that we will receive his grace and strength to be faithful!
As we approach the Triduum, let us be mindful of our weakness, of our very frail flesh, so that the Lord may strengthen us. But our weakness and temptations to betray the Lord through sin shouldn’t terrify us. The Lord has given us, as he did Peter, two great consolations to strengthen us on this journey. The first is HIS PRAYER for us. In St. Luke’s account, after Jesus told Peter that he would three times abandon him, he told him, “But I have PRAYED for YOU, Peter, that your strength may not fail, and that after you have converted back to me, you will strengthen your brothers and sisters in the faith.” And so Jesus says to each of us. “I have prayed for YOU, Marie Christine, Gabrielle, Mary Elizabeth, Roger that YOUR faith may not fail and that you will strengthen each other in the faith.” Consider the AWESOME reality of Jesus’s praying for each one of us! The second concrete help is the fact, which we learn from the Letter to the Hebrews, that Jesus suffered EVERY TEMPTATION we suffer from, but never sinned. He suffered from EVERY temptation we’re undergoing, including those that we’re suffering from even today, but never chose to sin. He recognized, too, that in a certain sense HIS flesh was weak, but it in his confident trust in the Father and in his love for Him that he remained strong, strong to suffer all that he did out of love for us. We now ascend the mountain of Calvary with him, at the moment when his salvific power was made perfect in weakness, and we receive his receive his very flesh, to strengthen our flesh and our Spirit as we try with Peter to be faithful to him this Holy Week, this holy day, at this holy Mass. God bless you!