Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Because I Am Peter

I went to bed last night re-reading George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholic, the chapter about St. Peter and Catholicism's physicality. I woke up this morning to Peter's second letter in the Office of Readings, where he says, "We were witnesses of His sovereign majesty." Do you find that sometimes the Holy Spirit shouts at you?

Peter was so many ways a failure, as I have been. Denying Christ three times is only the best-known example of Peter's failings. A recent thorny issue in my life reminds me every single day of my own.

In his chapter on the Apostle, Weigel takes the reader to the Vatican and to the scavi (excavations) beneath, where Peter's actual physical remains have been discovered. The body parts below the shins are missing, suggesting that after Peter had died upside-down on the cross, he was removed by cutting off his feet. Talk about physicality! Then Weigel leads us outside to  St. Peter's Square and the obelisk that stands at the center. Weigel links this obelisk, which stood in Nero's circus during the first century AD, with Peter's martyrdom, which may well have taken place in that circus. But not before reminding us of Peter's final denial. Peter wanted to escape martyrdom, tradition tells us, but as he fled Rome he encountered the Risen Lord. Peter asked Christ, "Quo vadis, Domine?" (Where are you going, Lord?) And Christ said: "I am going to Rome to be crucified." Whereupon Peter, for the final time in a long lifetime of times, realized his error and headed back to Rome, to be crucified. Weigel writes:

Tradition tells us that Peter died during one of Nero's spasms of persecution, and if so, he likely died in Nero's circus. If he did, then it's quite possible that the last thing Peter saw on this earth was the obelisk you're now pondering, which was moved to the square in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. Think about that . . .

I did think about that. And later:

Imagine Peter, in the agonized moments before his death, looking at that obelisk we can see today, and you can understand that none of this is easy.

I flicked off my iPhone with its Kindle app, and went to sleep imagining that as well. After ending the day with Peter's last vision, I began the next with his voice, in the Office of Readings. Imagine writing this eye-witness account, as Peter did of the Transfiguration:

It was not by way of cleverly concocted myths that we taught you about the coming in power of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we were eyewitnesses of his sovereign majesty. He received glory and praise from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him out of the majestic splendor: "This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests." We ourselves heard this said from heaven while we were in his company on the holy mountain. 

We ourselves heard this said from heaven while we were in his company . . . Peter was there! This imperfect, constantly sinning, ever-forgetful fisherman whose real name wasn't even Peter—was there. I take comfort in this fact. It suggests that I can go to bed every night distraught over my own failings, but still the sun will rise and there will be evidence good enough for a court room that God is merciful, reason enough for even a skeptic to hope. 

None of this is easy, Weigel writes, and Peter agrees, urging us to—

Keep your attention closely fixed on [the prophetic message], as you would on a lamp shining in a dark place until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your hearts.