Between working on a book about Leonard Swidler, writing for the site you are reading right now, family, and discernment, I don’t have much time to write fiction, but on occasion I do it still. In bits. Between breaths, in a sense.
During the Triduum, I started a story about Peter. I’ve thought a lot about him in the past weeks – naturally – and my story’s focal moment is in John 21, where Peter, after his checkered past, his revelations and denials, is restored by the Risen Christ to his mission and the leadership of the nascent Church on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Where it all had started.
I’ve been turning the story this way and that in my mind (before I find a couple of days to put everything aside and commit my version of it to paper), and yesterday heard it again, from the ambo, followed by an interesting homily. John 21 was the gospel of the day.
To start with, here is the gist of the passage: It’s been some unspecified period of time since Jesus died and appeared to his disciples on Easter Sunday. Peter and six others are at the Lake of Gennesaret, fishing – they are fishermen, after all – yet this night has been a miserable failure, much like the night years ago, when Peter, Andrew, James, and John had met the Nazarene for the first time. Back then, Jesus filled their net to the brim just by pointing a finger, and they left everything behind and followed him. And now they are back to their routine, and their net is empty again. Suddenly, a man standing on the shore tells them to cast the net on the right side of the boat, and when they do, it fills completely with fish – 153 in number, to be exact. It’s uncannily reminiscent of their first encounter; it evokes the day of their initial conversion. “It is the Lord!” one of the disciples says, and Peter grabs his clothes (men often fished naked at the Lake so they could retrieve the nets) and jumps into the water. On the shore, breakfast is already cooking on the fire, and the man they all know to be the Lord hands them bread and fish.
After the meal, we become privy to a conversation that seems to be taking place only between Peter and Jesus, as if the others gave them space or couldn’t hear.
“Peter,” Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.”
“Feed my lambs.”
Then Jesus asks him again, “Peter, do you love me?”
Of course, the same answer comes: “Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Take care of my sheep.” These are sounding like if/then propositions.
And the third time: “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter is starting to get hurt that Jesus keeps asking, but he’s made his own bed, and after denying his Teacher three times, he has to affirm his faithfulness three times. “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep,” Jesus says.
The story continues a bit longer, to what the author of the Gospel interprets as a prediction of Peter’s death, but the ending is not very relevant to us right now. This passage is usually called “the reinstatement of Peter,” for it seems that, failings or not, his primacy among the apostles is affirmed, and he is given a chance to counteract his denials with affirmations of love – and given a command to lead.
I’ve always thought this was entirely possible. Peter was the one who recognized Jesus as Christ and the one who turned away in the time of danger. He hesitated at the last supper and then embraced the challenge. He sinned and repented, wavered and straightened, time and time again. Who better than Peter, if indeed he’d found his way back to the Lord, to lead the others? Who better than the one who’d experienced the heights of utter chosenness and the abyss of betrayal and came back to humanity from both? Peter was a fisherman, which means he was a reasonably sophisticated businessman, spoke several languages, could count, had patience and physical strength. But more than that: Peter experienced and understood forgiveness. He was forgiven. On a level that can translate into teaching, compassion, and recognition, he had lived the very bedrock of Christianity’s message. Its basic theology.
Of course, none of the other disciples were perfect, and a few of them we know to have struggled with serious issues, but no one is quite shown in the Gospel narratives with an insight comparable to Peter’s. Matthew had been a tax collector – an ultimate and detestable sinner in the Jewish society of the 1st century, a collaborator with the Roman conquerors – but he threw his money on the road and followed and didn’t seem to look back after his conversion. Judas of the canonical Gospels succumbed to betrayal for reasons unknown to us but never climbed out of his pit of despair and was lost. Other disciples are mentioned as reformed prostitutes or men of wavering faith, but they are two-dimensional characters.
There is a cryptic “beloved disciple” or “one whom Jesus loved,” whose identity is unknown and who is variously speculated to have been either John the son of Zebedee or Mary Magdalene. Both are best mentioned and privileged in the early Christian narratives, only next to Peter. It is, by the way, the “beloved disciple” who calls out, “It is the Lord!” in John 21, and he (in this passage it’s a he and seems to be John himself) is featured in the closing of the story. Tradition names him as the only man to remain, along with the women, at the foot of the cross in the darkest hour, while others scattered, and to have remained faithful from his first day until his death at a very ripe age of 94, the only apostle not to be martyred, and to have written the Fourth Gospel as well as the Book of Revelation and three epistles. But if tradition is correct (of which modern scholarship is not so sure), John would have been entrusted with the care of Mary, Jesus’ mother, spent most of his life in Asia Minor and many years in exile on the little Greek island of Patmos for professing Christianity. And Magdalene – well, she was a woman. As unquestionably a leader in the movement as she was, in her time she could not take over the shepherd’s role from the Teacher, at least not officially.
Peter, on the other hand, is perfect. His profession gives him people skills, his sensitive nature gives him passion, and his painful past gives him…I don’t know. Wisdom? Jesus seems to have been grooming him for this from the beginning. If only he were ready!
This is where we come back to John 21 and yesterday’s homily by Deacon Doug. Because in John 21, Peter is still not ready. You’d think after Easter Sunday the newly minted Christians would be out there preaching the message, wouldn’t you? He is risen! But they are not. They are already believers, but they are not yet the Church. John mentions five names of the seven disciples present, which means two were probably women. The Twelve are not together, but they are not away on mission, either. They just…went home.
Yesterday, Deacon Doug quoted something from Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis): “It’s best to not confuse optimism with hope. Optimism is a psychological attitude toward life. Hope goes further. It is an anchor that one hurls toward the future…”* If you agree to play with these particular terms, there is definitely something to the principle. And Doug makes a keen observation: he thinks that what Peter and the others got on Easter Sunday was enough relief from their grief to re-acquire an optimistic attitude toward life, to climb out of despair, emerge from their hiding place in Jerusalem and return to normalcy. Come back to Galilee and go fishing. But it was daily optimism – not Eschatological Hope.
I like that. I agree. Because hope goes beyond the daily comfort of routine, the lack of fear for our lives, even an expectation of positive outcome. Rather the opposite, hope is what sustains us through broken routines, mortal danger, and certain defeat of every effort. Hope, as an “anchor” we hurl toward the future, binds us to the eternal and assured sea floor with the secure knowledge of up and down, East and West, so we can pull on the line and move. It sustains us with an awareness of the bigger picture. I think Deacon Doug is right: What Peter’s been lacking before the encounter at the shore of the Lake and what he needed to gain before he could lead the Church is Hope. Because without Hope, he’s been lacking Faith.
One of the most speculated upon moments in John 21 is the actual catch of fish numbering 153 that happens as a result of the Lord’s suggestion to cast the net on the right side of the boat. Some are engaged in an argument about whether it’s a miracle or an astute observation by Jesus of a school of fish and if it matters and if there’s a difference. Others interpret the symbolism of the number 153, indeed far too concrete to be random. Here, several theories explore biblical numerology (in that the sum of the numerical values of the letters comprising the words “the Passover” or “Sons of God” both equal 153, and so on).
Deacon Doug went in a fairly popular direction yesterday (though one built on a misunderstanding), saying that 153 was the number of all the known species of fish at the time and therefore symbolizes the universal Church, commanding the disciples to evangelize not only the Jews but the Gentiles and commanding us to be inclusive. Now. That the writer of John built his message on the fact that 153 species of fish were known in the 1st century is far from certain – let’s be honest, it’s highly unlikely – because every ancient ichthyologist lists different numbers, none of them 153 (though some are close), and the Sea of Galilee had its own unique ecosystem (not with 153 species). As noble and fitting, then, as such a message is, the truth might be that there is simply a cultural reference in this gospel that’s been lost to us. What catches my eye more is not the number of fish but just that it’s fish.
A fish in Christianity is a symbol of Jesus the Christ that goes back to its absolute beginnings. In Koiné Greek, “ΙΧΘΥΣ” (Ichthys) means “fish” and can serve as an acronym for “Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ” (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr), which translates into English as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The earliest, persecuted Christians in Rome’s catacombs used the acronym and the drawing of what we now call “Jesus fish” to let each other know how to find the places where the Eucharist would be celebrated. Jesus of the Gospels, himself a carpenter, called a fisherman as his first and favorite disciple, promised then and there to make him “a fisher of men,” and compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a dragnet. And when he appeared to his terrified students on Easter Sunday, knowing that between despair, crushing fatigue, and incredulity they had to be half-conscious and barely reachable, to prove the reality of his presence, he ate fish.
The same goes for bread, of course – and this one needs little explanation. That bread is a symbol of Christ goes back to the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels and to before that in John. It’s the Body of Christ. It’s the Bread of Life. It’s Eucharist. By the time of the writing of the Gospel of John, both symbols had been very, very well established. Bread, wine, and fish. To find them, to touch them, to take them in is to find and touch Him, to take Him in. It is, of course, nourishment for the body and soul, and it’s this nourishment that Peter and the others are lacking at this point in the story. And it’s this nourishment that the stranger on the shore offers to them – the Lord they have a tendency to recognize in the eyes of a stranger only after He one way or another calls them by name.
This nourishment is Christ. This nourishment is Hope.
I’ve come to believe that one way to define faith is as combination of love and hope (see the blog entry entitled “On the ingredients of faith”). To make it short, hope without love is boastful and arrogant, and love without hope is never-ending despair. But experience them together, and you find yourself in love with the vast and good, to which you are indestructibly anchored. You and world and God (whatever you might call God) are the same together, and then you know what to do, and despair can never overtake you. This I call “faith.” Faith gives us meaning. It gives us a mission. Clarity. Strength. And joy.
I am thinking that, at the time John 21 catches up with Peter at the Lake of Gennesaret, Peter knows what he loves, but his grand eschatological Hope might have been too deeply shaken by the loss of everything he’d ever held dear – the Man he loved, the presence of God, his own vow to follow the Lord for better or worse. He was crushed by sorrow, guilt, and cowardice and probably didn’t consider himself worthy not only to lead but maybe even to follow. I would be shocked if, of all the other disciples, Peter never had a crisis of faith.
I am thinking that at the Lake of Gennesaret Peter encounters Christ in some way that may or may not be literal but is no less real to him than all the others were before: when they met and he felt the miracle of life’s burden slipping off his shoulders, and when he looked into the Teacher’s eyes and saw Salvation, and when the Master kneeled before him and washed his feet. At the Lake, Peter casts out his net once again, like before, when the Teacher was guiding him, and he finally finds fish. He finally encounters Christ. He hurls out the anchor and finds Hope.
After days or weeks of aimless routine, Peter has a conversation without which he would remain always hopeless and faithless: He looks in the eye the one he betrayed and, weak and contradictory human being, tells him that he loves him, and is forgiven. And he feels embraced and connected and looks to the future without fear, though it may bring hard labors and martyrdom. No more loitering by the shore. Faith is mission. He knows now what he has to do: if he loves Him, he will feed His sheep. He will tend His flock. He will take the reins and lead. Because I think now, he is ready.
*From Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio by Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti (El Jesuita, 2010). English excerpts at http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1301525.htm