Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time a couple of years ago, I was overcome with emotion upon approaching St. Peter’s Baldachin, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpted bronze canopy below which lies the tomb of Peter himself. Being in that spot made Peter present to me in a way he had never been before. I believe it had something to do with the familial experience of visiting a tomb. Every Holy Week, I like to reflect on the Gospel reading of Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin and Peter’s denial of Jesus (Matthew 26:57–75). That reading of course ends with: “Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken: ‘Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.’ He went out and began to weep bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). That day in St. Peter’s Basilica, I sensed his bitter tears. Peter had been witness to all that Jesus had done; he could have stood and spoken on behalf of Jesus during the trial when “the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses?” (Matthew 26:65).
Peter denied Jesus because he was afraid of losing his life. One can understand the fear he felt from having witnessed Jesus being unfairly tried; he could have suffered the same fate that night. When confronted by danger, our instinct is self-preservation. I imagine that Peter wept bitterly for the loss of Jesus, for feeling that he had failed him, and for the awareness of his human frailty. Of course, we know how the story ends, and the power of Peter’s witness bears much fruit after the Resurrection. The Gospel accounts of the Resurrection depend entirely on the testimony of those who were with Jesus. When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate witness and testimony.
This past Holy Week saw the beginning of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged with the second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter of George Floyd. Both the prosecution and defense are keenly aware of the power of the disturbing footage of the incident, recorded by Darnella Frazier, who was only seventeen on that day in May 2020. Frazier testified on Holy Tuesday. “When I look at George Floyd,” she told the court, “I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles, because they are all Black.” She expressed regret for not having physically intervened to help save Floyd’s life. When I heard her testimony, I thought of Peter, whose fear for his own life at the hands of the authorities kept him from attempting to save another. I felt for her grief, but I also know that her testimony, her video, has continued to move many throughout the world to work for racial justice. On Good Friday, the act of adoring the cross was intended to bring us closer to the love of Christ, which by association deepens our love for humanity. Our bitter tears are intended to help us recognize the many moments that Jesus is crucified in our society. Every instance of racism and xenophobia is the pain of the crucifixion. Good Friday asked, “Are you a witness to the pain, suffering, and beauty of the ones who our society crucifies?” Do we feel with them? Do we stand with them?