10: Simon Peter, just like us
Spare a thought for poor Jesus as he pondered whom among his disciples he should pick as the rock on which to build his Church. A football team worth of good men they certainly were, but even the most obvious leader among them, Simon Peter, was inadequate in the face of divinity.
It should surprise us that the New Testament is quite so candid about the weaknesses of the Churchís first leader. If the gospels really were just fabricated propaganda, surely the evangelists would have drawn Peter as a paragon of valiant virtue, a leader among leaders, a man who truly merited the confidence Jesus invested in him. Instead, the Peter of the Gospel is a fallible human being. Peter is like any and all of us.
Witness his quite absurd efforts at camping hospitality just as something genuinely astonishing was happening before his eyes on Mt Tabor. Or take his lack of faith when Jesus, the one he ought to have known to trust absolutely, called him to walk on the water. He misunderstood Jesusí code when he resorted to an act of armed violence in the Garden of Gethsemane. Most famously, Peter committed the triple denunciation of Jesus ó not to the high priestís henchmen, but before mere slave girls with no clout.
St Peter was one of us: misreading the wonders of what occurs before our eyes, sometimes mistrustful of the powers of faith (even when we really should know better), sometimes acting inappropriately in our spirited defence of Jesus, and sometimes failing in our fidelity to the faith.
Lukeís story of St Peterís denial of Jesus is one of the most dramatic in the Gospel. Peter has the courage to follow the captive Jesus to the high priestís palace. But when recognised as one of the prisonerís sidekicks, he loses his nerve. The risen Jesus would prod Peter about it later, asking him not once, not twice, but thrice: “Do you love me?” He surely understood Peterís mortification at having broken his confident promises of unstinting loyalty, of having committed an act of betrayal. Peter was human, after all.
The story of the crowing cock humiliates Peter. And yet one may wonder whether Peterís denial of Jesus was not such a deplorable act of cowardice after all, but a judicious bid at self-preservation. What might we have done in Peterís shoes?
The church of St Peter in Gallicantu (literally, Peter at the cockís crow) on Mount Zion invites us to reflect on Peterís weakness. Yet, despite its name, the focus of this church Ė built in 1931 and maintained by the French Assumptionist Fathers Ė is mostly on Jesus. Many believe, with justification, that the church stands above the remains of the palace of the high priest Caiaphas, the place where Jesus was tried and jailed. These ruins include a jail and an unfinished purification pool, which served as a dungeon. If this was indeed Caiaphasí residence, then Jesus was most likely held in the dungeon.
Picture the scene of Our Lord, with a rope tied around his waist, being lowered through a hole into this dark, damp stone cell. In the dark night, he must have contemplated what torment was to come.
Next to the church are excavated steps dating back to Jesusí time. It is inevitable that Jesus, who based himself on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, would have walked on these steps on his way to the Last Supper, on his way back to Gethsemane, and again as a prisoner of the Sanhedrin. Here we can actually locate the physical Jesus.
Not far from the church of St Peter in Gallicantu is the multi-religious complex which houses Davidís tomb and the Upper Room. In reality, it houses neither. The imposing velvet-draped sarcophagus in the tomb does not contain Davidís earthly remains, and the Upper Room is a crusader chapel that was appropriated by the Muslims and used as a mosque. Even today Christians are not allowed to vocalise their prayers here. In March 2000, Pope John Paul celebrated a Mass in the Coenaculum (Roman for a second floor dining room), as it is knownĖthe first there since 1583.
The influential Holy Land expert Fr Bargil Pixner believed that the Last Supper took place on the second floor of an Essene guesthouse on Mount Zion, possibly on the Tuesday before the crucifixion. He explained this quirk of chronology by the fact that the Essenes used a different calendar from that followed by the other two Jewish denominations at the time, the Pharisees and the Saduccees, as the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essene community at Qumran have proved. Fr Pixner was among the archaeological team that excavated an old Essene gate on Mt Zion. According to him, the Passover meal was possibly organised by Jesusí half-brother James, who probably had links to the Essenes.
Near the Davidís Tomb/Coenaculum complex is the Dormition Abbey, a massive church just outside Zion Gate which was financed by Germanyís Kaiser Wilhelm II in the early 20th century. It marks the supposed place where Our Lady “went to sleep”.
Before his death on the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother to the disciple John. Some traditions have it that Mary lived out her days on Mt Zion, while others argue that she joined John on his ministry in Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, where many Catholics, including two recent popes, have venerated her reputed house.
There is no tradition placing Maryís death (and assumption) at Ephesus, so, it seems more likely† that she drew her terminal breath on Mount Zion, near the place of the Last Supper and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
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