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At Home in Lent ~ Maundy Thursday: Alarm Clock

At Home in Lent alarm clock

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Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times…’

Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

John 13:36–38; 18:25–27

On the top of many churches and some other tall buildings, there is a weather vane. Blown by the wind, it is a simple and accurate tool for determining wind direction. The first known one was in Athens, depicting the Greek god Triton, made by the astronomer Andronicus in 48BC. The Romans soon adopted this practical and ornamental idea, and they made weather vanes in honour of their gods. The gospel writers might have known of these, but they were by no means Christian or even Jewish. It was Pope Nicholas (800–867) who decreed that a cockerel vane should be put on every church tower, spire or steeple. He echoed Pope Gregory I, who two centuries earlier had said that the cockerel was the most suitable emblem of Christianity because it is the emblem of Peter, to whom Christ gave the care of the early church (see ‘Keys’, p. 28). A deeper significance lies in why the cockerel would be the symbol of Peter, who is more often associated with crossed keys: it reminds us of Peter’s human frailty and flawed nature. We are like that too, and the weathercock gives both an historical reminder and a call – a reminder that Peter denied Christ before the cock crowed and the call of the witness (or martyr) not to deny Christ.

Peter was simply the first person to deny Christ, and he will not be the last. While we try to remember all those who in the steps of Peter have suffered and died for their faith in the Lord Jesus, there are countless more who denied the faith, disowned Jesus and caved in under pressure. The shadow side of persecution, under which some become heroes, is that many more cannot endure, and reluctantly let go of that which got them into trouble in the first place, that which offends their persecutors or simply that which, because they believe it, brings pain, humiliation and sometimes even torture and death to their families and friends.

This is the cruellest and lowest form of torture, to perpetrate violence not so much against the one persecuted for their faith or beliefs, but against their family members. Long before Macbeth had Macduff’s family murdered in his absence (Macbeth, IV.iii), the unjust were inflicting grief as well as physical pain on their victims. Depraved humanity has known for a long time that the best way to hurt someone is to hurt someone they love rather than threaten them directly. Countless millions have endured that and surrendered their faith or integrity to save their loved ones. We should be cautious in judging them. This affects Peter too, because he may well have felt that some of his actions led to Jesus’ death and that, while he deserved punishment for his sins (as we all do), Jesus did not. So the challenge not to deny Christ is, in some contexts and situations, unbearably hard.

A weathercock sits on the top of every church spire to remind us not to deny Christ, but while the crow of the cockerel made Peter recall Jesus’ prediction of his denial, this is not of course the typical function of a cock’s crow. A cockerel serves as an alarm clock; it is a messenger of dawn, of the breaking of a new day. On that particular day, the cock’s crow is the harbinger of the darkest day ever. Peter has been waiting in the courtyard all night since Jesus’ arrest, to see what would happen, and what happens is not what he expects: the cock crows with its customary ‘Get up! Day is dawning!’ cry, but to Peter this is a sound of deep despair, because it calls him into a new dawn in which he is harshly reminded that he is a denier, the first ever, of Christ.

If we dread the sound of our alarm clock each day, and think it is a mournful, annoying call into the world, then Peter’s wake-up call on Good Friday morning was a raucous squawk from the depths of hell. And it wracked him. He bore the shame and burden of it not only as he witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion a few hours later, but to his own martyr’s grave in Rome. The gospel of Mark says, ‘Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept’ (Mark 14:72).

Peter’s weakness, referred to so often, and confidently frowned on by Christians and others since, can remind us of some home truths each morning when our alarm clocks hail and haul us into a new day. In the light of a new day, some of what happened in the previous one looks or feels different, and we can wake with a great sense of regret for something we got or did wrong yesterday. Or the alarm clock beckons us to excitement, opportunity and joy: what shall I do today? As you fumble for the switch, looking at the alarm clock through one eye, wonder how you, like Mary, can magnify the Lord today (Luke 1:46).

What is it, in faith, that your alarm clock says to you (apart from ‘Get up!’) each morning? To what do you wake each new day, and to what calling? Whatever it is, give thanks for it. The hymn by John Keble (1792–1866) begins, ‘New every morning is the love, our waking and uprising prove, through sleep and darkness safely brought, restored to life and power and thought.’ That is true, and was true, even for Peter on the day that the friend he denied would be crucified. Even then there was new love, greater love than had ever before been shown, as the cock crowed, heralding a day of both suffering and salvation, the combination of which made for a truly ‘good’ Friday, on which everything would change. May the alarm clock by the bed always be a reminder that God’s love comes every morning afresh, calling us to new tasks, new joys and new hope.

Lord Jesus, your love is new every morning, and gives us mercy and hope each day. As we wake from sleep, call us into the new dawn of salvation’s day, and give us grace and courage to own our faith and proclaim your glory. Amen

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield.

Please note this text is copyright © BRF, Oxford, 2018