“The Mosaics of in Gallicantu”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Mark 14: 66-72
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘I do not know or understand what you are talking about.’ And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’ But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.’ But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. 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.
After Jesus was arrested, he was taken to the house of the high priest. In this house there was a dungeon. In the time of Jesus, a dungeon was a deep shaft or cracked cistern. The arrested were bound with ropes and lowered twenty feet. There were no need for doors or guards or much of anything. Once lowered and the ropes returned, the arrested was kept in the darkness of what we might consider a deep, narrow pit.
Above the pit where Jesus was held there is now an archeological site and a modern church. Many churches in Israel are built over archeological sites. There is a church over the house of Peter in Capernaum; there is a church over the site of the annunciation in Nazareth. The place of the dungeon where Jesus was kept is now the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. The faithful worship over the ancient site; it is as if the church is rising from history. This type of church is very powerful.
The church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is like others, but it is also very different because of the mosaics. Outside the church there are three massive mosaics on the façade of the church. There is one depicting Jesus being lowered into the pit. There is one where he is being interrogated. And, there is one showing a scene that didn’t happen on the site, a future event, a meeting of Jesus and Peter after the resurrection.
There is also a statue, a life-size bronze, featuring Peter and a young woman and a guard. The statue is the reading we heard this morning. The image captures the moment where Peter is confronted and he says, “I don’t know the man.”
Somewhere in the bushes, right around the statue, there are roosters. Each time I have visited this church, almost on cue, a rooster will crow. Feels ominous. You don’t know if the rooster is crowing for you, for Peter, for someone else.
The church, often referred to only as “in Gallicantu” or in the cock’s crow, is just outside the old city, about a mile from the garden where Jesus was arrested.
The interior is modern and stark and captures the drama of Jesus’ suffering and impending death. Yet, what captures me each time is not the dungeon or the sanctuary or even the statue and the roosters, it’s the mosaics.
The first two are very straight forward. The first one, Jesus descending, shows a rope harness around his chest and you get a sense of him being lowered, there is despair in his face and body. The second he is surrounded by people accusing him and you get a sense of the chaos of interrogation, the swirl and frenzy. The mosaic is busy with anger and fear.
The third, and final, mosaic has none of the despair or anger, but there is fear. The risen Jesus is standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and Peter is knelling before him. This is the story told in the Gospel of John. After the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples go fishing. Jesus appears to them and there is a great catch of fish. After hauling the fish in and having breakfast, Jesus asks Peter three times, do you love me? It is a painful scene. It is as if with each question Peter is being taken back to the moment of his denial.
On my last visit to in Gallicantu, I was waiting for the group to finish wandering around the grounds when my friend, Bob, came and sat next to me. He could barely get the words out through the tears. He kept saying again and again, “I don’t know why this is impacting me this way.” As he described the dungeon and the darkness it was as if Bob was caught up in the despair and the fear and the agony Jesus felt.
After he composed himself a bit he said something intriguing. We had just visited Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum, a few hours before and he said, that was so painful and awful, but I just felt numb. I come here and I am brought to tears. Why is that? I didn’t have an answer for Bob then but I wonder if the answer is in the mosaics.
It’s hard to know, really, what will open your heart or why one thing impacts you when so many other things do not. In the moment I couldn’t tell him why or how, I just said, “this opened your heart; this is a good thing.”
The story of Peter’s denial is such a curious part of the gospel. Tradition holds that Mark is the collection of stories told by Peter; the Gospel of Mark is Peter’s memories. Perhaps that is why the story of his denial is told, a kind of confession, a full disclosure. We can be harder on ourselves than anyone else.
I say this because Peter’s denial is not really the story of Jesus. Jesus does say you will deny me and he tells Judas you will betray me. And they both live out the prediction. The action of Judas, though, is necessary. He goes to the high priest and is paid to hand Jesus over. They needed someone in the know to find Jesus at the right time and the right place.
The denial of Peter lacks this sort of importance. It’s almost as if this story is what Peter needs to say, needs to make clear to any and all who would hear him preach. Like Paul when he would remind the churches that he was a persecutor of the faith, Peter too needs to confess. It is as if he needs his confession in the record.
The story of Peter’s denial is also a bit of a problem because it has no resolution here. Like Mark’s whole gospel, it lacks an ending. In a few weeks we will read the story of the resurrection and be challenged by its lack of completion. The gospel ends with fear and fleeing, not faith and joy. Perhaps Peter’s story of denial is meant to prepare us for the lack of an ending. He wept when he realized his failure. Not a great way to finish a story or a character.
True, not all things need to end with a hug and a sunset. Not a lot of life has a tidy finish like a hallmark movie. But the bitterness of Peter, the heartbreak, the absence of forgiveness is not only a less than adequate story, it is unhealthy. In Gallicantu seems to understand this. The mosaics take you beyond the scene, beyond the story that is unearthed beneath the church. The third mosaic takes you to the moment of forgiveness.
Late one night, I was called to a local hospital. The nurse on the line said that a man was dying and the family wanted a pastor to pray with them, would I come? It was probably 2:00 in the morning. The man was in the emergency room on a gurney. He had a long gray beard and a lot of tattoos and his face seemed grizzled. His sister sat next to him and cradled his head in one arm and stroked his long hair with her other.
Something happened as she talked to me and told me the story of his life. It was as if with each story and each stroke of her hand over his forehead and down his hair, it was as if she was removing layers of a hard life. Her words, her touch seemed to be a kind of baptism, a washing away of brokenness. It was beautiful.
I am nearing the end of a decade of sermon on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are only a few left before the journey will be complete and I will begin again. I started out this path of preaching with a simple impulse, a simple question. What if we know too much already? We believe in God, we believe God loves us, we know about the bible and history and philosophy, we know a lot of stuff. We even know there is so much more to know. What if we know too much already?
We know doctrines and truth of mercy and forgiveness. We know bitterness and anger ruins us, destroys the soul. We know all this stuff, we just don’t know what to do with it really.
We know we are filled with mistakes and misdeeds. We are probably, for the most part, our own worst critic. We know when we blow it, when we say and do the most ridiculous things. We know all this; we just seemed stymied about how to change it for the better, to do better and be better. We know how we want to live; we just don’t seem to know how to actually live it.
The theory or the hope of the project of preaching through the gospels is that maybe they would hold the key, maybe they would give the power to live the way we want to live. Although I am still far from the life I hope to live, I do believe the gospels are the way, they have the power to take us there. I believe this is what the mosaics of in Gallicantu are all about.
The first two, the ones that capture the event, the despair, the frenzy and chaos— how far we get from truth and goodness— we can get stuck here. Like Mark, this is where the story ends. We know our faults, we see the wrong like Peter, but, then, that’s it. The faults just linger there, stay they, become a poison in the well.
We live like the brother who was only healed in dying. Perhaps at the end of it all it will make sense. God will sort it out, God will forgive. Someone will come heal us, forgive us, wipe away the wrong we bury in shame or dread. This is why the third mosaic is so important. It’s the hope of this forgiveness happening now.
I am not sure exactly what it was that made my friend, Bob, weep in Gallicantu. If I were to venture a guess it is the challenge, the heartache of moving to the last mosaic. The first two can take open your heart and reveal what is broken. But what we find in our heart is not necessarily our misdeed.
Sometimes it is not what we need to be forgiven of, it is what we need to forgive that weighs on us. Sometimes it is not our faults that we carry, it is the scars and wounds of being denied, being cast aside by a friend. The last mosaic is about forgiving as well as being forgiven.
After ten years preaching through Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I am left with two insights, two revelations. The first is humility. We are more likely to be humiliated than we are to choose a humble life. Humility is the key, the path, to following Jesus. Believing in Jesus is not all that hard. We confess our faith in him and about him without much effort. To live how he lived, to be as compassionate as he was compassionate, this requires a great deal of humility. This is not so easy.
The second revelation is this: learning to live forgiveness, learning to trust mercy, is the power of the good news. In the end, nothing really matters beyond this. That there would be some sort of forgiveness as her brother died was all that mattered. Learning to live this is learning not to wait until 2:00 a.m. on the last day of his life.
In the resurrection we believe we will make it to the third mosaic in the love and power of Jesus Christ. This question is answered. The answer we do not yet have is this: will we make it to the third mosaic with each other here and now? Make it not in terms of understanding, make it in terms of living.
In baptism we know God loves us, we know we are a beloved, that people have taken a vow to treat us as one of their own. We are a child of God given a new life, freed and forgiven, but will we live what we know? Will we make it to the third mosaic with each other, with the one who hurt us?
Will we forgive each other? Will we trust mercy in all humility? Maybe Mark left out the ending, the beach scene where Peter is restored, maybe he left it out because we are not ready to live it with each other. We can find it; we can live it. We can. Amen.
- 2 Kings 2:1 - 6
- Mark 14:66 - 72