One of the most universal of all religious symbols and images is the struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. The dualistic struggle between these two symbols, representing good and evil, is present in all major religions and mythologies of the world. Nowhere in scripture is this struggle presented more clearly than in the passion narratives of the four gospels. Throughout most of the narratives it appears that the forces of darkness will prevail, and historically most of the story takes place in the hours of darkness. During the actual crucifixion, we are told that darkness covered the whole land (Luke 22:44-45a).
At his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus draws the distinction between himself and those who have come to arrest him by casting their actions as part of the dark kingdom of this world. He said, “When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness (Luke 22:53)!” There is a clear divide between the two kingdoms presented in the gospels. Jesus, the true light that enlightens everyone (John 1:1-13) breaks into the world bringing the kingdom of God to humanity. The kingdom of this world is ruled by Satan, “the prince of this world” (John 12:31) stands in direct opposition to Jesus.
In our western thought when we think and speak of the dualistic struggle between light and dark believe that there are areas of grey, where it is difficult to determine the divide. This is not so in scripture which presents a clearly defined divide between the darkness and the light. Perhaps we want grey areas to exist in order to excuse the acts that arise from our sinful human nature. It is natural to be ambiguous when we are presented with an absolute dualism. We always prefer a “both-and option” over an “either-or option.” However, the division between the kingdoms of light and darkness are presented in scripture as absolute.
If there is an area between the two kingdoms it is not grey, but rather an area of shadows, which is where we find Peter in our text today. There is a great struggle taking place within Peter, as he stands in the courtyard of the high priest. Standing by the fire in the courtyard, Peter is partially in the light and partially in the darkness. Shadows partially veil his face and his identity. We are told that a servant girl stared at him in the firelight, finally identifying him as one of Jesus’ followers. Peter denied that he knew or had anything to do with Jesus three times while standing there by the fire. His face was lit well enough for Jesus to recognize him and look at him as the cock crowed.
In the realization of his sinful failure, compelled by shame and grief Peter turned away from the light and walked into the darkness of the night weeping bitterly. Like Judas, who turned away from the light and walked into the darkness (John 13:30), Peter was overcome with guilt. Unlike Judas, Peter returned to meet the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. Peter was once again able to walk from the darkness back into the light of the love of Christ where he found forgiveness and restoration.
Like Peter, we often find ourselves standing in the area of shadows when making decisions. We can do the right thing and step forward into the light of God’s kingdom or turn and walk away into the darkness. The good news is that when we fail, our Risen Lord Jesus Christ still calls us and welcomes us in the forgiving love of his light.
The painting above is “The Denial of St. Peter” by Dutch painter, Gererd (Gerrit) van Honthorst (November 4, 1592 – April 27, 1656). While working in Italy he became famous for his depictions of artificially lit scenes. He was given the nickname, “Gherardo delle Notti” (Gerard of the Night). This painting reflects his masterful use of light and dark and was painted in 1623.