Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday: Saint Peter's Worst Day


Thanks to Gwen Toth, the amazing director of music at Immanuel Lutheran Church and founder/director of the early music group ARTEK, I learned an astonishing piece by the great Renaissance composer Orlando di Lassus.

It's Lagrime di San Pietro, The Tears of Saint Peter, a setting of a twenty-verse poem by the Italian poet Luigi Tansillo (published in 1560), to which Lassus added a final motet.

The work is uniformly described as exquisite, and it is. It is scored for seven a capella voices, but Gwen is alternating solo voice verses with full chorus ones and just instrumental ones.

The music is rich and soaring and dense and transparent all at the same time, like all the masterworks of Renaissance polyphony.

But it is the text that is such a discovery for me. The poet Tansillo imagines the grief beyond grief that Peter feels after he has actively denied Christ three times before the cock crows. It's a rich, relevant thought for contemplation that speaks across the ages.

At the Last Supper Jesus told Peter that he would disown him three times before the cock crowed.

Peter replied: "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will." "I tell you the truth."

OF course that's not what happens. From Gospel of Luke, the third denial:

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean." Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

When Eyes Meet
Tansillo's verse focuses on that image of Jesus turning and looking straight at Peter, imagining what it must have been like for their eyes to meet and for Peter to comprehend the magnitude of what he had done.

The entire poem is worth reading, because it tells such moving story, but these excerpts give you an idea. Peter's fear and shame projects onto Christ that Christ is angry at him for the denial. But Christ has no such anger or hatred of Peter, and when Peter realizes this he can barely stand it.

When noble Peter, who had sworn
that midst a thousand spears and a thousand swords
he would die beside his beloved Lord,
realized that, overcome by cowardice,
his faith had failed him in his great moment of need,
the shame, sorrow and pity
for his own failure and for Christ's suffering
pierced his breast with a thousand darts.

But the bows which hurled
the sharpest and most deadly arrows
into his breast were the Lord's eyes, as they looked at him;

It looked as if his Lord, surrounded by many
enemies and abandoned by his peers, wanted to say:
"What I foretold him has now come to pass,
disloyal friend, proud disciple"

"More cruel", He seemed to say, "are your eyes
than the godless hands that will put me on the cross;
nor have I felt a blow that struck me as hard,
among the many that did strike me,
as the one that came out of your mouth.

I found no one faithful, nor kind,
among the many that I deemed worthy to be called mine:
but you, for whom my love was so intense,
are more deceitful and ungrateful above all the others.
Each of them offended me only by leaving me:
but you denied me"

The words full of anger and love
that Peter seemed to see written
on the serene, holy eyes of Christ,
would shatter whoever who heard them.

Like a snowbank which, having lain frozen
and hidden in the depth of the valley all winter,
and then in springtime, warmed by the sun,
falls apart and melts into streams,
such was the fear which had lain like ice
in Peter's heart and made him repress the truth;
when Christ turned His eyes on him,
it melted and was changed into tears.

And his crying was not a small spring
or mountain stream, which dries in the warm seasons;
for although the king of Heaven forgave him
immediately for his disgraceful deception,
not a single night in his remaining life passed
without the cock's crow waking him up
and reminding him how shamefully he behaved,
and inciting new tears for the ancient betrayal.

Realizing that he felt much different
than before, and unable to bear to remain
in the presence of the scorned Lord,
who loved him so, he didn't wait to see
if the harsh tribunal would hand down
a severe or clement sentence, but,
leaving the despicable place where he was,
bitterly crying, he returned outside.

By denying my Lord, I denied
life itself from which every spirit springs:
a tranquil life that neither fears nor desires,
whose course flows on without end:
because then I denied the one true life,
there is no reason, none at all, to continue this false life.
Go then, vain life, quickly leave me:
since I denied true life, 1 do not want its shadow.”

So Peter is in despair, almost it seems to the point of suicide. But we know he rallies, and is the rock upon whom the Church is built. The stone rejected by the builders is now the cornerstone.

And yet, that moment of looking Jesus in the eyes after he denied himself 3 times when it really counted was a cross for life.

The end of the Lassus piece is an older, Latin motet re-set. Its words are also pretty incredible: Christ on the cross telling us that as horrific and painful are the nails and spears, they are nothing to the pain of ingratitude. Imagine that.

Behold, mankind, what I suffer for you,
To you I cry, I who am dying for you;
behold the pains with which I am afflicted;
behold the nails with which I am pierced.
There is no pain like that of the cross;
and great though my body’s suffering might be,
the pain of ingratitude, however, is worse,
such ingratitude as I have experienced from you.

Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter, 1610
 Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter

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