A reflection on St. Peter the Apostle inspired by the oil painting of Fr. George Leonard Shultz (1896 – 1971). This same reflection was published in the Times-Standard on Saturday July 10, 2021 as “St. Peter and the Rooster’s Wake-Up Call“
On the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), Christ Episcopal Church Eureka completed the installation of “The Twelve Apostles” by Fr. George Leonard Shultz (1896-1971), a series of paintings that begins with St. Peter and ends with Judas Iscariot. Intriguingly, Fr. Shag shrouds both characters in darkness, thus emphasizing an often-overlooked similarity between the two. Although one became the guardian of the pearly gates and the other took up residence in the lowest circle of hell, the two of them both abandoned their rabbi in his darkest hour. Judas betrayed Jesus by handing him over to be crucified while Peter vehemently denied ever knowing him.
Fr. Shag highlights the key difference between the two disciples in his painting of St. Peter by including the silhouette of a rooster to the right of the apostle’s face. Although Peter previously boasted of his rock-steady courage, Jesus predicted that Peter would betray him three times before the rooster crowed (Luke 22:34). According to Luke’s Gospel, the rooster squawked as Peter was denying Jesus a third time and, at that moment, Jesus looked at Peter, who then began to weep bitterly (Luke 22:61-62). However, Peter’s bitter tears did not end in utter despair. Unlike Judas who fell deeper into self-destruction after his betrayal, Peter heard the cock crow as a spiritual wake-up call to humbly repent of his cowardly deceit and to receive God’s grace. So, although Peter and Judas had both succumbed to selfish behavior, Peter chose to repent and reorient his life according to grace and resurrection; and therein lies the crucial difference between the two.
After rising from the grave, Christ offered Peter forgiveness in the form of a fish-fry breakfast on the beach, perhaps as another rooster crowed in the distance. Christ then offered him spiritual rehabilitation by asking him three times, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15– 19). After answering in the affirmative, Peter was charged to care for Christ’s flock, even if that meant courageously risking his own life. Decades later, when Christians were being executed in Rome, Peter initially wanted to flee the city, but then he remembered Christ’s words of commission and chose to remain, ultimately proving faithful unto death. During Nero’s reign, Peter was crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus. For this reason, the cross of St. Peter is an upside-down cross, which Fr. Shag carved into his frame.
Thanks to his response to the rooster’s wake-up call, Peter became the courageous founder and bishop of the church in Rome and thus the first pope. Centuries later, his papal successors hailed the rooster as a fitting emblem for Christianity. In fact, one pope decreed that all churches display a rooster on their steeples, which led to the use of roosters in weathervanes on churches and houses, a trend that continues today. So, the next time you hear a rooster crow or notice one on a weathervane, may it serve not only as a reminder of St. Peter’s story, but also as a spiritual wake-up call to renounce cowardly selfishness and reorient towards grace, courage, and resurrection.