Called as individuals and as one
Peter Gallagher SJ reflects on renewal, the one-hundred and fifty-three fishes, and the community
May your people exult forever in renewed youthfulness of spirit. This prayer from the collect of the Mass for the third Sunday of Easter echoes a phrase in the psalms: I will go in to the altar of God: to God who gives joy to my youth. What a good attitude with which to approach our worship. We serve God joyfully, drawing on strength which he gives us. What do we sing in God’s presence? We cheerfully play our part in a very venerable tradition. Yet our song is always new. There is fidelity and renewal all at once. Our works and activities renew themselves or die. You have given your exultant Church cause for such great gladness...grant that her gifts may bear great fruit.
All through the weeks of celebration of Easter thanksgiving is made over and over again for the most recent baptisms and conversions. There is an emphasis on new beginnings and fresh starts. Renewal is quite central to our faith. We are always starting again. The Resurrection is a re-birth and Jesus shares his own new entry into the world with all of us. We start again – not wearily or ruefully or with déjà-vu – but with the joy of the newcomer who is hopeful, optimistic and generous.
Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore, full of big fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them: and in spite of there being so many of them the net was not broken. The evangelist John surprises us with his precision here. What can be the significance of the exact number of fish? From the difficulty the fishermen have in landing the catch, we know that it is a very large one. There is a marked contrast between the earlier failure to catch anything and the abundance of this unprecedented haul. The risen Christ continues to interest himself in the ordinary work of his disciples and to help them. They recognise him by this interest and by his dramatically transforming help. Nevertheless, why the precision, why one hundred and fifty-three? Long before, the Lord had told his friends that they would be fishers of people and not just of fish. People are not just any old catch. We are not just scooped up by faith, but called and identified.
Peter who had three times betrayed his master is three times asked to care for those who are gathered together by faith. This care is attentive and gentle. Simon Peter respectfully wraps his cloak about him: out of respect for Christ and out of respect for us. It is not the corralling of a herd or the netting of a shoal. We are called by God to give the service we give. We may be struck sometimes by our insignificance. However this incident insists that we are all, nevertheless, big fish. All one hundred and fifty-three have their specific identity. There are no minnows in the Lord’s service.
The hymn of the universe
Were there once about one hundred and fifty-three countries in the world? Antiquity made this the number of the nations. The big fish are us, but also whole nations. Overcome with Paschal joy, every land, very people exults. We are drawn to Christ as individuals but also as whole communities. The Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of St John, emphasises that we are a great crowd giving thanks and praise to the Lamb who was sacrificed and is risen again. The whole of creation is a kind of hymn to God, who became part of what he had made by the incarnation, and then transformed that creation by his life and death and resurrection. There is something emphatically physical about this change. The fish are caught and are cooked. They smell delicious. Friends find themselves hungry and then eat together.
The hymn of the universe is about life and its details which give glory and praise to God. The Mass is a cosmic liturgy. Our worship draws into involvement the whole of creation, the whole universe. All of our life is present in the eucharist and with it all other lives and every created thing. There is something sacrificial about all of this. The Lord’s generosity is in domestic details as well as on a cosmic scale. Jesus who cooked breakfast also died on Calvary. His great sacrifice accompanies many smaller ones.
His disciples too have their sacrifices to make, small and large. They too were being drawn into the unique sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He offers everything not for destruction but for transformation. The Lord seeks to make everything perfect and complete
Jesus is in the detail
The details of our imitation of Jesus are different in every case. Different breakfasts: one hundred and fifty-three different fish: different lives and deaths. However in all the details and differences we recognise not only ourselves but Jesus. We know quite well that it is the Lord who addresses himself to us, and calls us. Does he provide the energy for a life of fidelity? Does he give us the grace we need? Jesus gives us all that we need in a way which honours our character and our situation. He knows and loves our particularity and our common humanity. There is much to be done. What next?
May your people exult forever in renewed youthfulness of spirit. May we sing a new song. May we rejoice in our renewed service. May the grace of God show us the way and give us the energy we need to travel it.
Peter Gallagher SJ