“When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them.” Luke 23:55
The courtyard at the house of the high priest is the fourth of the five buildings we encounter as we follow Saint Luke’s telling of the story of the events from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Sunday to his death and burial on Friday. A courtyard may not seem like a building, but this is clearly one that is entirely walled and which has a guard on the gate. Saint Luke does not tell us how Peter came to be in the courtyard, he just says in Chapter 23 Verse 54, “Peter was following at a distance.” We find an explanation as to how Peter came to be where he was in Saint John Chapter 18 Verses 15-16, where we read, “Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in.”
The courtyard is a place of questioning for Peter and a place that asks questions of us. The courtyard is a place of contrasts.
The courtyard is a place of warmth and a place of coldness. Saint Luke Chapter 23 Verse 55 says, “When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together.” It is a cold night and they have gathered together for warmth. Close to the fire, there would have been heat from the flames, further back they would have felt the chill of the night air. Peter must have sat a fireside for warmth many, many times, but whatever physical warmth there may have been, there was a deep spiritual coldness. Peter must have felt the cold numbness of shock at what had happened in the previous hours and also a sense of chill brought on by fear of what might happen next.
There have perhaps been moments when we have experienced that spiritual coldness that Peter felt, a sense of feeling frozen and numb at things that have happened in our lives. Perhaps we can understand something of what Peter felt.
The courtyard is a place of gathering and a place of isolation. “Peter sat among them,” says Verse 55. Peter was among them but not of them. He could not turn to any of them as a friend and discuss the things that had happened. This crowded place is a place of isolation for Peter. There can hardly have been any other moment in his life when he felt as lonely as he did sitting there among them.
We have perhaps had times in life where we have been completely alone, but we have felt no sense of loneliness, and other times when we have been surrounded by people, but have felt entirely isolated. Had we sat among them, as Peter did, would we have seen ourselves as being alone and vulnerable?
The courtyard is a place of light and a place of darkness. Verse 56 says, “ Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him.” Light in the darkness of the courtyard would be welcomed by most, but Peter would have preferred the darkness. The light reveals Peter and the woman said, “This man also was with him.” Peter’s reaction is to straightaway deny Jesus, “Woman, I do not know him,” he declares in Verse 57. Does Peter feel trapped? Does he feel that he must stay there in the light of the fire for fear that trying to go away will confirm the woman’s accusation? He sits on there, in the flickering firelight and in Verse 58 we are told, “ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said,’Man, I am not!'” Did the other people sitting there turn and look at Peter and wonder about what was being said of him? The accusations did not go away, for Verse 59 says, “about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.'” The light has shown Peter to the crowd, and Peter would have preferred the shadows, would have preferred the anonymity that darkness would have provided; given the time again he might have waited away from the fire. The light causes Peter’s words in Verse 60, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!”
All of us have moments of light and darkness in our lives. Moments when we see things clearly and perhaps wish that we had not seen the way things were because once we know, we must do something. Peter is revealed by the light and responds by denying he is the person the people think they have seen. Do we sometimes try to avoid the truth about ourselves by trying to be someone different?
The courtyard is a place of noise and a place of silence. There is the hum of conversation which fades away as the scene unfolds. If we read Saint Matthew’s account of events we find in Chapter 26 Verse 74 we are told that when he was challenged a third time Peter “began to curse, and he swore an oath.” Peter’s third denial of Jesus is very emphatic, he raises his voice and, perhaps, in doing so, he silences those around him. There is only Peter’s voice to be heard in the cold night air then, says Verse 60, “At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed.” There must have been a profound silence at that moment, we are told, in Verse 61, that ” The Lord turned and looked at Peter.” Had we been present, it is one of those scenes which would replay in slow motion in our memories.
Like the light, silence is also something that reveals the truth. It is easier to hide among lots of noise, but when there are no distractions, there is no choice but to think about things. Do we too often try to avoid things by shutting them out with lots of noise? Has silence become almost something that frightens us?
The courtyard is a place of loyalty and a place of denial. It is loyalty that has brought Peter to this place, it is loyalty that has helped him remember the words of Jesus, but his loyalty has not been strong enough. Verse 61 says, “Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.'” Peter offers no excuses, makes no attempt to justify himself, does not try to avoid the facts, instead, Verse 62 tells us, ” he went out and wept bitterly.”
We are all like Peter, our loyalty to Jesus falters, to a greater or lesser extent, we deny him every day. We differ from Peter in often we try to excuse ourselves, justify our way of thinking, avoid the fact that we are not the people we should be.
Warmth and coldness, gathering and isolation, light and darkness, noise and silence, loyalty and denial: the courtyard asks us many questions.