Peter moved from tree to tree as he watched the group shoving Jesus along the path. He knew it was dangerous, following, but he was drawn. He had to know what was coming. The guards pushed Jesus through the garden, through the trees, and on to the back alleys until they finally reached their destination. Peter hung back, covered by the night, and watched. They pressed Jesus up the side steps that led to the house of the high priest. Peter furtively looked around from outside the gate. Soldiers mixed with civilians. People clustered here and there in the courtyard.
He watched for the chance to work his way into the courtyard unnoticed. He inched his way along the outside wall, hidden in the shadows. Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, he steeled himself and walked in as a small group entered.
Once in, he looked up to where they had taken Jesus. He could just barely see Jesus’ profile in the window opening above the stairs. In horror, he watched as a guard reached out to strike Jesus. Peter flinched with the blow to Jesus’ face, almost as if the blow was to him. He saw Jesus stagger then catch his balance. Peter reached up, as if to help steady Jesus. But Peter dropped his hand to his side, useless to help.
He looked away and glanced around to survey the situation. He could see a small band of guards kindling a fire in the middle of the courtyard. With one more glance towards Jesus, he tried to look relaxed, even with his heartbeat pounding in his ears. He sauntered over near the fire where the guards were standing. If he got close enough, he might hear what the plans were for Jesus. The guards were talking. They joked, laughed, but the words were too muffled. Closer, he thought. I’ve got to get closer.
Nervously, he looked around. Look natural, he told himself. Blend in. Peter walked to the fire, extending his hands as if to warm them. The light of the blaze threw dancing shadows onto Peter’s face. He sat down by the fire and watched the flames. But as he sat, the reality of it all hit him. He dropped his head onto his arms. How could this night have gone so wrong? The thought ushered in real fear. He glanced up again to where they held Jesus. This is serious, he knew, deadly serious.
Across the fire, a young servant girl was studying Peter. Something was familiar about this man. She watched Peter’s eyes being drawn again and again to the place where they had taken that Jesus. She saw sadness in Peter’s eyes, but she also sensed fear. “This man was with him,” she said flatly, “with that Jesus.”
Peter’s throat constricted, and his heart raced. “Woman, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He looked defiantly at the faces that had turned to look at him. He shrugged gruffly and kicked at the dirt by the fire. “I don’t know him,” he said. He scowled then looked back at the blaze, afraid to look up. Did they buy it? Were they going to take him too? He tried to steady his breathing and hoped they didn’t notice the beads of perspiration forming on his forehead.
The guards snickered but went back to their conversations. Slowly Peter let out his breath. He chanced to look back at the window. Jesus’ back was to him, but he could see something around his head. Peter squinted. It looked like a blindfold. One of the men at Jesus’ side threw a punch. Jesus’ head jerked back, and his hands went up to try to stop the next blow. Another grabbed Jesus’ arms and pinned them behind. The men took turns hitting him, spinning him, hitting him again. Jesus staggered and reached out to catch himself, but the next punch sent him hurtling into the wall.
Momentarily Peter lost sight of Jesus, then he saw one of the guards lift him back to his feet, only to slap him and spit in his face.
A sob caught in Peter’s throat as he watched, horrified. “My Lord…” he whispered. This one who had taught him how to love. This one whose touch had brought healing. Peter knew – knew to the depths of his soul that this was love incarnate.
Peter turned away and moved from the fire. He couldn’t bear to watch any longer.
The night air pressed around him, and he walked over to the fountain. He splashed the cool water on his face and leaned over the shallow pool. The moonlight cast a rippled reflection onto the water. Peter stared as the swirling water pooled onto his hands, mixing with the tears that streamed down his face. He stood there, wanting to leave but needing to stay.
“Hey! I know you. You’re one of them.” Peter heard the words and spun around to face his accuser.
“Man, I am not!” Peter spit out the words disgustedly. “I don’t know him!” He raised himself up to his full height, clenching and unclenching his fists. The man squinted suspiciously at Peter. “I know you. You’re one of them,” the man hissed under his breath.
The man turned and walked towards the guards.
Every nerve in his body was on edge. Peter wanted to run, but he knew that running now would only seal his fate. So he willed himself to stay planted, muscles taut. He stood motionless, waiting. The guards looked up as the man approached them, but the stranger moved on past. Slowly Peter unclenched his fist and let himself sag against the wall. Relief washed over him. He stayed there, leaning, his energy drained.
“So, who hit you that time?” the voice jeered. “Prophesy! Who hit you?” Jesus grimaced with each blow. Father! He screamed in his head. Father, can I bear more? Two came at him this time. He could hear their movements. He braced himself for what was to come. With cruel precision, one of the guards punched Jesus in the back, into his kidneys, while the other hit him with a rod at his knees. Jesus buckled and fell. His head dropped forward and struck the floor. A cry escaped his lips. Blood gurgled in his throat and trickled down his chin.
“Get up, oh great king!” The words dripped with sarcasm. He drug himself upright. They sneered, kicking him toward the wall. One held his arms behind his back as another punched him again and again. Jesus coughed and gasped, choking on his own blood. Can I bear it? He cried again to his father.
They let go, and he crumpled to the floor. One of the guards bent down and ripped off the blindfold. The light glared into his swollen eyes. He saw that they had surrounded him, like hungry wolves closing in on their prey. He reached to the wall and pulled himself up. Mercifully, they stopped. They were becoming bored with their game. His ragged breathing was lost in their laughter.
He groaned, held his side and leaned his head against the window opening, cool to his touch but now smeared with blood. He saw Peter then, in the courtyard below. He, too, was leaning against a wall. Ah, Peter. His rough tenderhearted Peter had stayed. He’d risked it all to stay.
Jesus looked intently at Peter. At that moment, he heard everything so clearly, every sound acutely resonating in his temples. The laughter, the words, the thoughts, the hearts. He saw, too, every movement, as if in slow motion. He saw a man walk over to Peter. He saw Peter’s head rise. He heard the familiar booming voice, the same voice that on a past night had called to him on the water. “Lord, save me,” Peter had cried to him in panic. Jesus had reached out and held him. But this time, there was no reaching. Peter’s shout echoed through the courtyard. “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about! I tell you,” he cursed out, punctuating each word. “I DO NOT KNOW JESUS!”
Jesus heard it. He heard it before time began. He knew they would desert him. He knew. Had known all along. Still, the preceding blows had been nothing, nothing compared to this. This blow was worse. This pain was worse. He knew, yet had hoped…
The rooster crowed then, and Peter looked up, beyond the face of the accusing one, and on to the face of this one, this broken and bleeding one. Again the rooster crowed. And Peter saw, saw it all. The miracles, the talks, the prayers, the bread, the wine, the garden. And he saw this: his own failure… his utter, complete, total failure. He saw the only one who had shown what love means, and he saw now that he could never deserve that love.
Jesus and Peter looked across the expanse of time and space. Their eyes locked. All the sounds muffled; all the movements blurred. Peter saw Jesus’ lips move. He heard the words, the whisper as it carried on the breeze.
“Remember, Peter. I’ve prayed for you, dear friend. I’ve prayed.”
Jesus saw Peter’s shoulders slump. He watched Peter turn in despair and stumble out the gate. Jesus knew. He loved. But he knew.
Outside the gate, Peter stumbled to his knees. He threw back his head in anguish. Unbearable! Unforgivable! He clutched his heart in debilitating grief. And Peter – and Jesus – wept.