The third in a series of five addresses reflecting on characters appearing in the Gospel readings for each day of Holy Week from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
Eye witnesses to the drama in Jerusalem have so far included two men who shared a name: Simon the leper and Simon of Cyrene. Today’s eye witness has no name and we know very little about her. She appears in all four Gospels, so we have no doubt about where she was and what she said, but we are not given any information about her – not even the hint of a name.
This is how she appears in the Prayer Book Gospel reading from Saint Luke, Chapter 22, verses 55 to 57,
“And Peter followed afar off. And when they had kindled a fire in the midst of the hall, and were set down together, Peter sat down among them. But a certain maid beheld him as he sat by the fire, and earnestly looked upon him, and said, This man was also with him. And he denied him, saying, Woman, I know him not”.
“A certain maid” who says that Peter was with Jesus, that is all we know of our eye witness. How shall we put together a picture of her? How shall we see things through her eyes? A little Sherlock Homes like deduction is necessary to try to build a picture from the clues we are given.
Our eye witness is in the house of the High Priest, so, although she is a maid, it is safe to assume that she is a girl from a respectable, traditional Jewish background. If she was not from a devout and discreet family, she would not have been considered for the post. In such a religious and such a prominent household, it would have been important for her to have known how to conduct herself properly in everything she did. Jewish life was governed by a multitude of religious rules and a maid working in the house of the high priest would have needed to know those rules.
We know from her place of work that the maid was respectable and devoutly religious. We know from the fact that she was there that she was young, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old. An older woman would not have been in the hall of the High Priest in the early hours of the morning; she would have been married and would have been at home with her family. If she was older, but still unmarried, she would not have been in the High Priest, for to have failed to have found a suitable husband would surely have been a sign of divine disfavour.
“A certain maid beheld him” is sufficient through her location and occupation to tell us much about the girl.
Looking through her eyes, what do we see? We sees a great fuss and commotion as, out of the darkness of the night, there comes a group of people. We would recognize some of them as visitors to the High Priest’s house. What are they doing? They have the man Jesus of Nazareth: what are they doing with him? We have heard of Jesus: why has he been brought here at dead of night? We have seen Jesus and his followers in the city, but what is going on?
Everyone gathers in the hall. There are many important Jews present and we hear sharp words being spoken.
We stand at a distance. It is a cold night and a brazier is lit and people gather around it. Beside the fire there is a familiar face. We have seen him before. This man is one of Jesus’ friends. we look hard at him. It’s definitely him. Before we know it, we have blurted out, “This man was also with him”.
Our eye-witness report ends there. We know the girl must have seen Jesus before because amidst the darkness and confusion, she is able to identify Peter.
Perhaps we can try to deduce what might have been going through her mind at this moment.
The first thing to note is that she speaks. This seems no big deal, but to a woman in a very conservative household of the time, the idea of speaking to strangers, most of whom were men, was unacceptable.
She speaks when she should not have spoken; she speaks when her traditional, religious upbringing tells her that she cannot say anything.
What does she say? “This man was also with him”.
To us, it sounds like a denunciation; it sounds as if she is accusing Peter of being an associate of the prisoner Jesus. But look what happens?
If the girl had wished to denounce Peter, she would have gone to her superiors; if she had wanted to see Peter arrested, she would have made more of a fuss. She does not do so. Peter is not arrested.
Saint Luke tells us she “earnestly looked upon him”, not the behaviour of someone who regarded Peter with suspicion and malice. Isn’t it more likely that her words, “This man was also with him” were spoken as an excited whisper; that she was hoping one of the people there would get Peter to tell them more about Jesus?
The girl would have been too afraid to have questioned Peter for herself; she should not have spoken at all. But perhaps, if the others know that peter was one of Jesus’ friends, they will ask him questions and she can listen to the answers. Many people will have done similar things, we have been at a meeting or gathering where we have wanted to ask a question, but we have not had the courage or the confidence to stand up and speak, so we have whispered information to someone else in the hope that they would speak for us.
Our eye-witness is little different from most of us. She want to know more about Jesus, but she is uncertain and afraid. The “certain maid” mustered great courage to speak at all. She might have been rebuked, even punished for her insolence. The evidence suggests that her words came from a genuine interest, a heartfelt desire to know more about Jesus of Nazareth.
Had we been in the place of our eye-witness, how would we have behaved? Seeing Jesus arrested; hearing the shouts and the denunciations; would we not have hidden away in fear?
The girl does not hide away. She stands there because she wants to know. Against all the rules of her society: she speaks.
Had we been there, would our faith have given us such courage?