The Other Three Denials

[Thursday’s Passion Week Reading: Matthew 26:17-56]

As best I can recall, the first time I stayed up all night – not a wink of sleep – was sometime during the fall of my first year of junior high. But my first attempt at doing so was when I was right around eight years old and in Second Grade. A boy – we’ll go on and call him Tommy – had recently moved to town and into my class at Adams Elementary, and when he invited me over to stay at his house, we decided our top priority was an all-nighter. We were certain we could pull it off if we could find just enough things to entertain us long after the rest of the world had gone dark. What we found to be true when the big night arrived was that right around one in the morning, you get a bit bored with watching old episodes of “Knight Rider” on VHS. It was at this early-morning hour that Tommy insisted we could get a little wind back in our sails if we were to sneak upstairs from the basement we’d taken charge of for the night and give his mom a good scare.

“She always falls asleep on the couch while watching TV,” he said.

So we tiptoed up the stairs and on toward the living room. Once we were just outside the room, we opted for a military crawl to enter it, and when we bumped up against the couch – whose back was to us – we inched our way up, stifling fits of laughter as we readied ourselves to scream out as soon as we spied his mother sleeping. Trouble is, when our eyes peaked over the top of the couch, we discovered she wasn’t on it, and she wasn’t asleep. She was sitting on the floor, clutching a framed picture, crying. I looked over at Tommy, Tommy looked back to me, blinked, swallowed hard, and motioned for us to leave as quietly as we’d entered (but a little quicker this go-round). Back at the basement, Tommy plopped down in a recliner and I on a couch, and we sat there in silence. And here is what I was doing: I was thinking about that framed picture. It was of just one person – a man – and I’d looked just long and hard enough to know Tommy bore a striking resemblance to him. The man’s hair was jet black and straight to Tommy’s slightly-curled dirty blond, and he had a bushy mustache to Tommy’s empty upper lip. But the eyes and a uniquely toothy smile were the dead giveaway: The man was Tommy’s father, and the sad state of his mother in the living room – and Tommy’s wild, wide-eyed attempt to shoo me out of that room and away, away, away from it all – told me that framed snapshot Tommy’s mother was clutching with white-knuckled ache was the only way this man was at all in the picture for the family. Tommy was the first child of divorce I had ever known. And even at just eight I knew my call. To sit and be with my friend. To be so brave as to break the silence of a basement that had somehow grown both bigger and smaller in the wake of one searing moment. To break that silence with questions perhaps nobody had asked before. To then break it more with answers that would strike adults as paper-thin and precocious but are beautiful to children. With an invitation to a friend to punch a pillow in release on the other side of the whole muddled conversation. With prayers neither of us had ever prayed before. Even at eight I knew my call, and I will stand, I thought, as I sat on the couch, and I will go, and I will sit with him, and I will be with him and I will ask questions and I will offer answers and I

“Brian. Brian. Are you asleep?” came Tommy’s voice in the dark.

And I was, I was.

This was not the first night I stayed up all through the night, despite it being the first night I had good reason to, and I’ve thought of what was lost that night, many a night since.

Taking all accounts into mind and not just Matthew’s, there’s so much to Thursday, isn’t there? The meal. (That meal!) The towel and the basin. One more tide of thrilling teaching. But the moment each of the disciples slip into sleep when Jesus most needs them – this is the moment that I find haunting me this Passion Thursday. “Sit,” Jesus says to the Twelve – and to three in particular, and to Peter more particularly still. And in many a context within the Jewish world, the invitation to “sit” was anything but an invitation to rest, let alone fall asleep. To sit in a circumstance such as the one that unfolds in the garden was to stay with a friend, to keep watch with a friend, to mourn with a friend, to search with a friend for some way forward, to help a friend conjure up enough courage to carry on with whatever it is they must carry. It was an invitation the three in particular – and Peter, more particularly still – felt they must accept, for they followed along behind Jesus as he made his way deeper into the garden for a time of prayer. But it was one they ultimately didn’t. Three times the disciples fell asleep – in particular, the three, and Peter more particularly still – and the pain Jesus’ feels at this is palpable. I keep mentioning the particularity of Peter because as you well know, we’re just a breath removed from the moment in the Upper Room when Jesus predicted Peter would deny him three times before the crow of some rooster down the street. Matthew is being a bit playful here, isn’t he? But it’s painful play on his part, not pleasant. The three denials on Peter’s part that come on Friday are the ones we’re ultimately to have in mind with regard to Jesus’ prophetic word, but we can’t quite forget there were three more before them – the garden denials hidden in, yes, the act of sleeping. We thank God Jesus had the strength to carry on despite the abandonment of his dearest friends. We thank God God was there when Peter and the rest had long chosen instead to tiptoe through the escape of dreams.

Simple, prayerful presence is one of the more potent ministry gifts we offer. In an offering of a shoulder – that is, in our sitting, our being, our asking, our answering, our praying, our punching of pillows – we somehow partner with God to create a bit of sacred space on the shoulder of another, which is, of course, space set aside for a cross. And this is wonderful, because crosses always lead to life, oddly enough. The joy is that somehow in it all we create a bit of sacred space on our own shoulder for our own coming cross (or the one we already carry). And this is wonderful, because crosses always lead to life, oddly enough. Crosses always lead to life. And so this much we know: The sirens are many that sing to us to woo us away from the ministry of presence. Some sirens are as seemingly innocuous as sleep. And so we pray, don’t we? We “watch and pray that we might not enter into temptation. For the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” We pray that even in the midnight hour, we will stand, and we will go, and we will sit, and we will be with, and we will ask questions, and we will marvel at even the crumbs of answers that come to us, and we will spot a cross and carry it. Together.

To read Monday’s Passion Week reflection, click here.

To read Tuesday’s, click here.

To read Wednesday’s, click here.