I first saw this icon in a Facebook post by St John the Evangelist Orthodox Church.
I absolutely love this icon. For me, it captures a level of authenticity unlike other icons. This is an icon of Peter’s denial.
Four things immediately grabbed my attention when I saw this icon:
First, is the accusatory gaze of the rooster. If a bird ever looked at me like that, I would ring it’s neck. Or at least throw a rock at it. But Peter didn’t do either. Because in the sound of its crow and gaze of its eyes, he heard his friend’s voice, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”
Second, is the despair on Peter’s face. This is a man at his absolute worst. Despite his bragging and posturing, he completely failed his friend. He has failed the movement. And as far as he knows, he has completely disqualified himself from everything Jesus spoke about and worked for. There are some failures from which you cannot recover, and this is one of them. And now, stared down by a lousy fowl, he’s curled into a shell of a man.
Third, is the smoldering fire. It’s barely burning, almost reduced to wisps of smoke. But those wisps ascend to heaven and are noticed by God. I think it’s very symbolic of this failed man. It reminds me of Isaiah’s prophecy, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
Fourth, is the halo. In the midst of failure, accusation, and despair, the halo remains. Peter doesn’t know it yet, but hope and holiness still shine in the darkness.
Peter was pretty familiar with failure. It seems to be one of the Gospels’ subplots. If it wasn’t so tragic, we would confuse Peter as the comedic sidekick to Jesus’ heroic journey. He’s brash. Quick to speak. Quicker to misstep. Sinks like a stone in the water. Called “Satan” by Jesus. Confuses flailing for swordsmanship and cuts off Malchus’ ear in an attempt to defend Jesus. And now, when his devotion counts the most, he denies Jesus three times.
But where any of these failures may have driven most men to quit and return home, Peter never walks away. Well… not until after his denial and Jesus’ torturous death on a Roman cross. At that point, it’s all over. Messiahs don’t get crucified. They don’t die at the hands of the army they’re supposed to rout.
So perhaps Peter’s failure was needed at that moment. I think Peter may have been brash enough to attempt to continue Jesus’ movement without him. And in doing so, he would have interfered with God’s far greater plan. So Peter’s ultimate failure in the courtyard when confronted by a young girl was the necessary breaking point in a man both to get him out of the way as well as to prepare him.
So disillusioned and stripped of self-confidence and grandiose plans, Peter returns to his life before Jesus called him to follow. Or so he thought.
I love how the scene plays out in John 21. Peter is trying to forget Jesus by immersing himself in his old life and work. Jesus appears on the shore and does the exact same thing he did the day he called Peter.
And Peter gets it.
His immediate response is still brash. But it’s a brashness similar to the prodigal son, a story Peter must have heard Jesus share many times. It’s a brashness that compels him to run to Jesus’ side. Well, actually swim, not run. I wonder if Peter thought to himself as he was struggling to the shore, “Now would be a great time to walk on water, Jesus.”
But there would be no divine assist this time. This time Peter needs to struggle to Jesus himself. Sometimes God needs to stand back and let us exercise our will and devotion.
What a morning that must have been for Peter. Breakfast with the resurrected Jesus. Jesus was not covered with bruises and blood like he was barely alive and somehow survived his torture and entombment. No this was a living, healed and vibrant Jesus.
And after breakfast, Peter takes a personal and painfully therapeutic walk with Jesus. He relives the failure from three days prior. And like his friend who was lain dead in the grave and now walks next to him with new life, Peter’s failure is resurrected and transformed into a commission.
Prior to his denial, Peter probably had the audacity to continue Jesus’ movement in the wake of his perceived failure at the hands of the Romans. Now commissioned, he is empowered to be the initial spokesperson and leader of Jesus’ movement in the wake of his glorious ascension forty days later.
And Peter’s transformation would not have been possible without crushing failure.
God does not extinguish the smoldering wick. In God’s New Creation, the smoldering wick can become the shining star.