Look at the face of St. Peter, bound to the cross in agony to be dangled from the heavens. Caravaggio depicts the crucifixion of St. Peter in vivid detail but as I look at his face I am unclear what Peter experienced in his final moments. His mouth is open and his brow furrowed but his eyes are clear and his gaze focused. Is this agony or something more? Is this realization or even perhaps a moment of extreme clarity and determination to see his destiny fulfilled?
I am trying to see Peter as he was in life and in death. In these times of uncertainty, consider a man who was able to rest in the unknown and made his living on uncertainty. St. Peter was not a perfect man. Actually, he was a tremendously flawed individual and yet he was chosen by Jesus to be the first leader of the Church. One day be would spoken of as “the great centurion” by perhaps the greatest poet in history. Despite his many flaws Peter became the leader of the single most influential religious movement of all time, one which overturned an empire and changed the course of humanity forever.
If you or I were offered the chance to handpick a leader from the New Testament, many individuals would come to mind. Nicodemus may have been a bit thick when it came to comprehending Jesus and yet he was a learned man, a Pharisee well versed in the scriptures and undoubtedly a skilled rhetorician. He was also humble enough to approach an itinerant teacher from Nazareth and call him Rabbi. (Jn 3:2) Surely Nicodemus would have made an able leader of a newly formed Jewish sect. Or we might think of John the Beloved Disciple who stayed at the side of his Lord till the end. The only disciple who had the courage and devotion to stand at the foot of the cross when the great atonement occurred. St. John, the evangelist, most deeply spiritual of all the gospel writers, who rushed to his masters grave but deferred to Peter all the same. In fact we could think of many figures who appear in the gospels that would seem able leaders of the one Church of God. Why a poor fisherman with little to no education, whose only skill seems to be his ability to question his master’s decisions?
St. Ambrose once said, “The ship is not shaken which holds Peter.” Peter is both rock and anchor, but he is also a simple fisherman. Such men build their lives on the uncertain and unpredictable. For the Jewish people and all those tribes of Canaan the sea was imagined to be a frightening place of chaos and death. This theme appears in many stories in the scriptures, the flood narrative, Jonah and the whale, the abyss at the beginning of time, and most famously the Red Sea which only by the hand of God is brought into subjection. Ancient Mesopotamian religion contained parallels. Gilgamesh, the god-king of Uruk travels across the violent waters of death to find Utnapishtim, the only man who has ever found the secrets of immortality. Gilgamesh ultimately navigates the waters but fails to gain immortally because he is too weakened to pass Utnapishtim’s test. Man cannot come to immortality by his own means.
Peter, like Gilgamesh before him, tries to accomplish everything by self-will. When Jesus first meets him, down by the boats on the shore of the Galilee, Peter has worked all night to make a catch and yet his nets are empty. (Lk 5:1-2) Labor for its own sake or for the sake of earthly fulfillment is empty, it will not nourish or sustain us. So first we must listen to the teaching of Jesus. He stands in the boat by the shore and offers instruction to the people, to us. And this is where we must begin, with the teaching. It is no good to say that the master has left. He never left us and neither has his word. It is written in those scriptures we know so well and yet hardly at all. That is where we start, with listening.
After that, before we can imitate Christ, we have to imitate Peter. Gain the grit and determination of a fisherman. Feel the biting salt air, the disconcerting but familiar surge of the water, and leave the shore where our confidence in the familiar is. “Put out into the deep…” Jesus says. Here we must hover over the abyss with nothing but our little boat and our wits. Unless we have had the sense to bring Christ with us. What do you imagine is out here? Is this the yawning oblivion of death or is it the surging depths of God? We can be sure it is the latter when St. Ambrose commenting on these words writes, “Launch out into the deep; that is, into deep researches. What is so deep, as the knowledge of the Son of God!” None can ever fathom the depths of God but he will guide us in this earthly journey to the place where we may peer down and wonder. Then with instruction, a catch will be made.
At last we cast our nets and draw from God’s depths food to feed the world. The only food that ever really sustained humanity. Love. A good while later, after the betrayal, and the passion, and after the impossible had occurred, Jesus sat with Peter on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. They ate fish of course and Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me.” (Jn 21:16) There Peter redeemed himself and as we read we understand why Peter was the perfect, actually the only one to lead the Church. So when you feel uncertain or afraid remember St. Peter at the end of his life, hung from a Roman cross. Peter, who could look with confidence and realization on his own broken and tormented body and remember that all of this is done for love because love is all that truly is.