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A House Built on the Rock

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Tucked into the eastern slope of Mount Zion is a beautiful church called St. Peter in Gallicantu (Peter at Cockcrow). It boasts beautiful, panoramic views of the city from its expansive grounds, which reveal the rolling contours of the Judean hills still undulating gracefully beneath the urban development which saddles them. The church’s location on the mountain’s shoulder does more than invite visitors to admire the view. Through its multiple levels, built one upon the other, St. Peter in Gallicantu invites pilgrims on a journey through its architectural explication of redemptive love.

A visit to the church begins at its base, under the foundations. At this deepest level of the church, a visitor can access the archeological excavations which were traditionally believed to be the system of prisons underneath (or nearby) the first century house of the high priest Caiaphas, in which Jesus was kept the night of his arrest. The site was venerated by early Christians, as witnessed by the fourth century Pilgrim of Bordeaux, who, in 333, bears testimony to this site, remarking that from the Pool of Siloe [Siloam, excavated in the valley below Peter in Gallicantu] up to Mount Zion, the pilgrim would pass Caiaphas’ house. Accompanying the pilgrim’s account is a diagram of the caves, with an imagined figure of Jesus inserted therein.

There is something touching in the experience of walking through these ancient rocks and ruins that the churches themselves do not always capture. Holy sites can feel smothered in the devotion of many centuries, the traditions of each era foisting themselves on the place, and obstructing an encounter with the holy land itself. But in these old caverns of rock I find pure awe. An air of mystery emanates from them, grounded in creation itself, rooted in the earth, in the holy ground. Their antiquity is more impressive a decoration than any gold or incense, and their preservation is a remarkably poignant testament of childlike faith.

To sit in the cavern a few minutes is to spend time with Christ the prisoner. To imagine the omnipotent God bound and abandoned is a mighty task for the limited human mind. To imagine the All-mighty reduced to helplessness is a powerful invitation to see Christ in our own experiences of helplessness, our own experiences of powerlessness. If God could descend to these depths where I now sit (these very depths), who am I to say that God cannot be found in the depths of my own experiences of pain, injustice, addiction? Did Christ not descend to these very depths in order that no depth of pain I experience would be devoid of God?

Continuing upward, the second level of the church above the archeological digs is the crypt. In contrast with the church above it, the crypt is a simple, unadorned space of fresh and natural beauty. Unlike the cisterns and caves beneath it, it is full of peaceful, natural light. The three splashes of color which brighten it are a trinity of icons spanning the front of the church. The first depicts Peter’s denial of Jesus, its caption: “Non novi illum” (Lk 22:57 [“I do not know him”]), capturing the moment Luke records of Jesus turning and looking at Peter as the cock crows. The centerpiece of the Petrine triptych is an expansive icon behind the altar of Peter weeping for his sins, “Petrus flevit amare” (Lk 22:62 [“Peter wept bitterly”]). The final icon, on the right of the altar depicts Peter’s response to Christ’s call, “Tu scis quia amo te” (Jn 21:17). “You know that I love you.”

At the archeological level of the church, the pilgrim sees a small part of the price that Christ paid for Peter’s denial, sitting alone in the prison as Christ did. The pilgrim can taste a fraction of that dark loneliness caused by Peter’s sin, feeling its weight and its sorrow. In the bright crypt, the pilgrim witnesses a powerful testament to forgiveness. The central icon is not Peter’s denial, but his tears of repentance. This crypt testifies to the possibility of great love, even after great sin. Peter, when the time came for him to be most loyal, to prove his worth as a friend, to prove the worth of his love for Christ, acutely flunked the test. But, after weeping bitter tears, Peter once again proclaimed his love for Christ, and not only that, boldly proclaimed, “You know that I love you.” Peter trusts that his former actions, which scream louder than his thrice-repeated words of love, do not obscure his heart from the Lord; he trusts firmly that his love outweighs his sin.

Finally, the uppermost level of the Church is a dazzling eschatological vision. Its bright mosaics display the twelve Apostles on twelve thrones, “judging the twelve tribes” (Mt 19:28) along with Christ the judge. It celebrates the status of Peter as head of the Church, a monument to the great reward and honor bestowed upon this most unworthy of disciples.

The walk through St. Peter in Gallicantu is a rich experience of Christ’s love and forgiveness. The church structure celebrates that solid rock on which the universal Church is built, yet it also witnesses to the limitations of its own Petrine foundation. Peter, like the stone the church is built upon, is all too capable of crumbling. In the end, it is not Peter’s fallible human nature that keeps the Church intact and upright. It is the love that descended into the very depths of that foundation, bound in stone, that offered boundless, gratuitous forgiveness to the weakest of its members. St. Peter of Gallicantu celebrates that love, and Peter’s dependence on that love, his unwavering belief in it, even in the face of his imperfect commitment. The love upon which our faith is built is Christ’s ever-constant love, a sure foundation which never crumbles under the weight of our denials. The glittering mosaics of the main sanctuary provide a spectacular final image of the glory awaiting the believer who makes her foundation that generous, life-giving rock.

All photos courtesy of the author.

Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.