What comforts in our lives could lead us to deny Christ under the right circumstances? All of the Apostles fled from Jesus upon his arrest and crucifixion, except for Judas, who betrayed Him and St. John, who stayed with Him and Our Blessed Mother. These Apostles, who just hours prior sat with Him at the Last Supper where He instituted the Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders, abandoned Him.
His closest friends and followers. Those men were chosen to be the first bishops of His Church. The men chosen to follow Him on the Way of the Cross. The same men who repeatedly could not understand the fact that Jesus had to be crucified, die, and rise from the dead in order to bring about the work of redemption.
We can easily make the mistake of believing that we would never do any of these things; that we would never abandon Him, betray Him, or flee. Every time we sin, we do exactly that, and in a world marred by darkness, sin, temptation, power, and the lures of comfort, the danger for each one of us is that we will abandon Christ when our hour comes and we too must undergo the test.
St. Peter boldly proclaimed—through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that there is nowhere else to go except to follow Him. Later, when the time of testing came, St. Peter denied Jesus. Here’s what John’s Gospel says:
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Now the other disciple was known to the high priest, and he entered the courtyard of the high priest with Jesus.
But Peter stood at the gate outside. So the other disciple, the acquaintance of the high priest, went out and spoke to the gatekeeper and brought Peter in.
Then the maid who was the gatekeeper said to Peter, “You are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”
Now the slaves and the guards were standing around a charcoal fire that they had made, because it was cold, and were warming themselves. Peter was also standing there keeping warm.John 18:15-18
This is the first time St. Peter denies Jesus. Notice how he enters the courtyard through the help of another disciple. He isn’t completely alone. He is with a fellow follower of Christ. Rather than seek to stay close to Jesus, St. Peter stays at a safe distance, denies Jesus, and stays at a charcoal fire where others are warming themselves. St. Peter’s distance from Jesus is felt in the description of how cold it was that night. St. Peter chooses to warm himself by the fire in the things of this world, rather than embrace the cold, isolation, and persecution Jesus is experiencing at the hands of the high priest and his men.
St. Peter refuses to accept the path. He refuses in this moment to embrace and accept the Cross. While Jesus is being interrogated and struck inside, St. Peter continues to keep warm from the cold of the events taking place. This is not just a physical cold, but a spiritual cold. He chooses the false flame of a worldly fire over the fire of God’s love. He keeps Jesus at arm’s length, at a safe distance. This leads him to deny Jesus three times.
As he continues to warm himself, he is questioned again:
Now Simon Peter was standing there keeping warm. And they said to him, “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the one whose ear Peter had cut off, said, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it. And immediately the cock crowed.*John 18:25-27
One of the essential reasons why we should meditate on this passage of Sacred Scripture is because it is not only about St. Peter’s denial. It is about our own. Like St. Peter, we often want to be comfortable and secure in the world, warming ourselves by the fire, and keeping the company of those in power. If St. Peter defended his relationship with Jesus, the servants would report him to the high priest and the officials would have taken him into custody.
In our daily lives, we tend to betray or deny others for much less than to protect our lives. We participate in office or parish gossip, rather than defending innocent victims, because we’d rather not be called out for defending someone. We want our comfort and security. Certainly, we don’t want to be disliked or hated, so we warm ourselves by the fire of gossip or inaction. We betray those innocent people who are not present in order to be liked by people who would turn around and do the same thing to us under different circumstances. We don’t want to be weird, questioned, accused, or cast out by the group.
There will come a day very soon when we will have to give an account for our faith, even to the point of sacrificing our jobs, livelihoods, relationships, and our lives. That is how bad things are getting in our culture. Persecution is here and it will continue to grow in the years to come as our culture becomes more and more radically secular. How we live now will prepare us for when the Cross comes for us. If we cannot be trusted in small matters, how can we expect to be trusted when we are outright threatened for our faith? If we do not boldly live as disciples of Jesus in this life, we will give an account to Him when we die.
All of us have areas of our lives where we have placed comfort, security, and power ahead of Christ. We don’t want to faithfully live the truths of our Catholic faith, so we deny them or hide them. It may be in how we treat other people, our lack of focus on God, or maybe we are addicted to the comforts of food, pleasure, television, sex, social media, status, honor, money, possessions, reputation, and success. Clinging to these things makes us spiritually vulnerable and weak. In our human frailty, it does not take much for us to deny Christ when asked if we are one of His followers. Comfort is the enemy of holiness.
It is only through a life of prayer, the Sacraments, sacrifice, mortification, serving others, and the virtues that we can prepare for these moments in our lives. We must submit to the Cross and embrace it as the ultimate path to joy. If we flee or shirk the Cross, then we will be like St. Peter and deny Our Lord, or worse, we will become Judas and betray Him for thirty pieces of silver. This is why St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was this past Monday, taught the following about true joy:
Brother Leo wondered much within himself; and, questioning the saint, he said: “Father, I pray thee teach me wherein is perfect joy.” Saint Francis answered: “If, when we shall arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, “We are two of the brethren”, he should answer angrily, “What ye say is not the truth; ye are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say”; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall – then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.St. Francis of Assisi, “Perfect Joy”
St. Francis goes on to describe this type of treatment occurring again and again, but that perfect joy is being able to overcome one’s self by God’s grace rather than falling into anger or despair. True freedom and joy rests in sharing in the Cross of Christ, not comfort and security:
But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, “I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
As Christians, our ultimate joy can only come from sharing in the Cross of Christ. If we flee from the Cross, avoid the Cross, or put our Cross down, then we will never find perfect joy. Instead, we will deny or betray Jesus. Thankfully, all of the Apostles who fled from Christ’s Cross eventually embraced it and were given martyrs’ crowns because they came to understand that they could not live in comfort. To be a disciple is to follow the Crucified One wherever He may lead.