During Holy Week, two stories of two men stand out as something of thematic bookends, perhaps similar to the way in which the Lord Jesus on the Cross was flanked by two thieves, one “good” in his repentance and the other doomed because of his lack of repentance and his blasphemy. The two men I am speaking of, of course, are Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot.
There are sets of liturgical chants composed in the Sixth Century by Romanos the Melodist for both Judas and Peter.
In “On Judas,” to the Lord is addressed:
With water you washed the feet that ran to betray you,
and you nourished with mystical food
the enemy of your compassion, one stripped of your blessing.
To Judas it is said:
Unmanageable, unloving, implacable, brigand, traitor, trickster,
What had happened to make you reject him?
What had you seen to make you mindless like this? What had you suffered to make you hate like this?
Had he not named you his own friend?
Peter is also spoken about in the Kontakion about Judas:
Peter declined when the Only-Begotten inclined,
eager to wash his feet,
and he said, “Lord, Lord, you shall never wash my feet.”
The basin lay there already filled.
The Savior stood there and the Redeemer had girded himself like a bought slave.
In Romanos’s composition “On Peter’s Denial,” he writes this after recalling how the Lord told his disciples that one of them would betray him:
“What are you saying, Teacher,” Peter cried out, “would I deny you?
Would I leave you and flee and not remember you calling me and my honour?
I still recall how you washed my feet,
and you say, ‘You will deny me,’ Redeemer?
I am still thinking, Saviour, how you approached
my steps carrying the basin,
you who bear the dry land and carry the sky.
By the hands by which I was fashioned I now have my feet washed,
and you cry out that I shall deny you…”
A number of poetic stanzas describe Peter’s denial (“Why, Peter, did a girl petrify you?”–I don’t know if the play on words is in the original, but it’s works well in English). Then follow his tears. Then this:
The Compassionate One is conquered by Peter’s tears and grants him forgiveness.
For as he spoke with the thief there on the Cross, he hints at Peter,
“Dear thief of mine, be with me today,
since Peter has abandoned me.
Nevertheless to him as to you and to those who seek,
I open my compassion, for I love mankind.
With tears, thief, you say to me, ‘Remember me,’
While Peter, weeping also cries, ‘Do not abandon me.’
Therefore to you and to him I speak, and those who cry,
‘Hasten, Holy One, save your flock.'”
The last line above is actually a refrain, repeated at the end of each of the 24 stanzas. It refers to the idea of the Shepherd being struck down and the sheep scattered. Peter is one of those who scattered, as the Lord prophesied, and the Lord told him to repent afterwards and “strengthen your brethren.”
It is clear that Peter here is linked with the Good Thief. Judas, as I suggested, is the flipside of the example of Peter, and flanks Christ as the other thief. Both men failed Christ, but Judas neither loved Jesus nor felt that he needed him, while Peter did, in fact, love Jesus if imperfectly, and very much wanted to be with him and not lose him as his Lord and Savior. The Difference between betrayal and denial is great. Betrayal says “I want nothing more to do with you; I reject you; I hand you over.” Denial says, “I fear suffering, lose of life or reptuation, so I am hiding my identification with you.” But even if we deny him, He is faithful in his love for us, if we return. He receives prodigals back.
All Christians deny Christ in some way or other during the course of a day, in small ways, and sometimes in large ways. It is better for us to see this clearly and learn. Sin is a denial. All we like sheep go astray. But like Peter, we return to the Lord because we know He is the Lord who alone can save us. We, like the Good Thief, put all our hope in him, even when we fail him. “Hasten, Holy One, save your flock.”