The Cowardly Disciples
It’s hard to get through any Easter season without reading a comment, or hearing a word in a homily, about the cowardice displayed by the disciples at the time of Jesus arrest. It’s a point often mentioned but, I’ve noticed, not often elaborated on. Why were the disciples suddenly so afraid that they would desert someone so important in their lives? Someone they knew could be the Messiah? And, if they ran when the crunch came, what do we have to look forward to in the difficulties we, as Christians, face today?
I started thinking about not cowardice, but courage. I tried to think if I had seen any acts of real courage in my life? I honestly couldn’t think of any examples of what we typically think of as courage, someone facing real danger for a good cause or reason, bravely, despite the consequences. I was thinking strictly in terms of valor. Then, on Saturday evening at Mass, I noticed the young deacon who will receive priestly ordination in June.
I realized I was in the living presence of someone displaying real courage, defying conventional wisdom and all our society values and approves in the service of his deepest beliefs. Some would say he was throwing his life away for nothing. But he has something they don’t; he has something true to live for. I think that’s a display of true courage. It’s not just a reflexive act, done in a moment of crisis, it’s an oblation of self to God, for God’s will. What could be more genuinely courageous?
Perhaps the most courageous man I’ve known though was my own father. He had little education, but like most Scots, a great deal of talent and ingenuity. He came to America looking for a better life and found it. He worked 30 years in a Detroit stamping factory as a die maker. It was dirty, dangerous, sweaty work. He would go to work every day, even into his 60’s, in the dead of the Michigan winter or heat of summer. In the summer the temperatures would reach 120 degrees or more inside that factory. He never took a “sick day” or even much vacation. He did it to provide a living for our family and so I could eventually receive an education and become a CPA. I never wanted to be an accountant, couldn’t imagine such a thing, but that’s what he wanted for me. He didn’t live to see it. He was a true hero, a truly courageous disciple.
I realized that accusing those disciples of cowardice is to make a false accusation. Yes, they took flight at first, but they stopped, Jesus caught up with them, as he does with all of us. True, he “upbraided them for their hardness of heart,” but then he breathed on them, just as God breathed life on the first man, Adam, and offered them new life. They had the courage to stop and listen. The result was that all but St John gained the martyr’s crown. That wasn’t cowardice, it was another example of true courage.
I realized they weren’t cowardly disciples after all.