He couldn’t get warm. He was chilled even though the fire before him blazed. He stared into the flames—watched them dance, leap and pulse. He wondered for just a brief moment if the flames were alive. Hunching his shoulders he strained to hear conversations across the courtyard. He could see the shadows on the stones of the palace courtyard. Elongated and surreal. He shuddered.
He closed his eyes, and he remembered. The Lord was on his knee, bent and stooped, wringing the soft, worn linen almost dry. Jesus had wiped the dust and grime of the day from Peter’s calloused, fisherman’s feet. Even now the protests rose and choked in his throat.*
Her voice startled him. “You were with him. You were with that man from Nazareth.”
The denial fell out of Peter’s mouth before he realized what he was saying. “I don’t know or understand what you are talking about.” He turned away from the woman and watched the flames. The tendrils seemed to reach toward him. Pulling and tempting. He just could not get warm. How had the Lord gotten to this place? Arrested and in trial across the courtyard even now. Why?
In the light of the fire Peter remembered. The Lord had explained. And Peter had been appalled. He had told the Lord he would not suffer. He would not be held by these people, would not be killed. Never. And the fire in Jesus’ eyes had scorched him. Singed him. *
The woman’s shrill voice broke into his fragmented thoughts. He could hear the accusation. He could feel all the eyes on him.
“He was one of them.”
Quickly his mind registered the contempt as she spoke the word them. He realized he was one of them. One of the disciples she had seen with the Rabbi from Galilee. What if they made him leave the courtyard? What if they opened the gate and escorted him out? Best to deny a connection right now. He wanted to remain as close as possible to Jesus.
Raising his voice he looked at the servant woman and snarled, “I’m not one of them.” The woman raised her eyebrow and did not drop her gaze. Peter turned back to the flames. Absently he muttered and talked to those standing with him.
Someone threw fuel into the fire and the flames danced closer. Sparks popped and crackled at his feet. An ember fell on his sleeve leaving gray ash. He brushed it away.
And Peter remembered. The garden had been dark. The olive trees planted close and tight. It was a familiar place. And the Lord had asked him to pray. Peter could still hear the sound in his voice.
Somewhere in the middle of the pleas he had nodded off. The third time the Lord had wakened him, Peter had been embarrassed. And when he got embarrassed he always made a fool of himself.*
The man next to him leaned toward his ear. “Surely you are one of them. You talk just like them. You speak like the group of Galileans. Didn’t I see you in the olive grove with him?” The man’s words targeted Peter. Eyes narrowed. Slitted. Riveted.
Curses spewed out of Peter’s mouth. Cursing the tell-tale cadence of his speech. He turned and swore even as he felt the hair on his neck rise. “I don’t know this man. I don’t know this man you’re talking about. He ran his hands through his hair and across his beard. And those standing close moved back—moved away from the reach of his wild gesturing. The courtyard went still. Voices fell away.
Somewhere in the distance a rooster crowed.
Peter shivered. As the crowing faded the spit in Peter’s throat began to choke him. Frantically he clawed at his neck. He turned.
There Jesus stood. Looking at Peter. His eyes bore. He didn’t look away. But Peter did.
And Peter remembered. The look in the Lord’s eyes had been soft and full of compassion and a gentleness Peter could hardly bear. He had called him by his old name, “Simon, Simon.” And Jesus had warned him, “Simon, you are going to be sifted like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith would not fail.” Peter had turned with vehement words, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”*
Strong, bold words for such a weak man.
In bitterness Peter laughed. An ugly sound from somewhere in his throat.
The rooster had crowed.
Peter tallied his denials.
He ran out of the courtyard into the dark night.
And he began to weep. And he could taste the bile in his throat.
*John 13; Luke 22:31-34; Mark 14:32-42; Matthew 16:23.