It is rare that the Biblical texts allow us to see the joy which the Lord's disciples experienced at his Resurrection as clearly as do the readings of this afternoon's mass. The early morning freshness of the Sea of Galilee allows us to catch something of the early joy of the Church as she was coming into existence. It is the joy of beginning, the joy of hope. The large lake with its water merging on the horizon with the blue of the sky becomes the image of the open future of the Church where heaven and earth touch in the distance. Filled with hope, we set out confidently on the sea of the future, as Jesus stands on the shore and his word travels with us on our journey. The evangelist with consummate skill has woven for us a unique image of the Church which is at the same time promise and guide. It is a complex image and so I will attempt to highlight only two of its more important aspects here.
First we have the meeting with Jesus after the long night of failure. He is standing on the shore, having already crossed the waters of time and death. He has reached the shore of eternity but still watches his people and is still with them. He asks his disciples for something to eat. It is the secret of the Jesus who has risen from the dead, the humility of Almighty God: he needs his disciples' commitment, he needs their "yes". He asks us to go. He asks us to become fishermen, to trust him and to act according to his word. He expects that we will value his word more, even, than our own experience, skill, or expertise. He asks us to base our lives on his word. But then, something extraordinary happens. When his disciples come back, he no longer needs their fish. He has prepared breakfast and now he invites his disciples to stay. He is the host who feeds them. It is a mysterious gift, but not one which is too difficult to understand. He himself is the bread: "I am the bread of life". He is the grain of wheat which has died, but which now bears a hundred times as much fruit, enough for the end of time. The cross he himself has chosen is the multiplication of the loaves, the divine triumph over the evil temptation to overpower people with food and thrills for the senses. Only love may bring about the true multiplication of the loaves. The size of material gifts decreases the more they are given away. But love increases the more it is shared. Jesus is the bread and he is also the fish who descended into the water of death to look for us and to meet us there. So the breakfast Jesus shares with his disciples, there where time and eternity meet, is in fact a symbol of the Eucharist. "Come and eat", he tells us and invites us to pass over the limits of time and death.
Thus, a first image of the Church is clear: it is a eucharistic Church. What is distinctive about the Church takes place here. In no other group of persons to which we may also belong, does the Lord invite us to come and to eat. He is our host and he gives himself to us. God becomes our bread so that now we draw our life from him, and therefore, really begin to live. Time and eternity are interwoven and our time is penetrated by something stronger even than death. This new nourishment does not feed us temporarily but comes from a source that will never fail or dry up, it comes from the living God. Thus we become a eucharistic community and we start with the Easter secret of the dead grain of wheat. But what does it all mean? How does it happen? If we want an exact answer to this practical question then I think we have to give close attention to this paradox. At first it is Jesus who asks his disciples for something to eat. They have to leave and act according to his instructions. But as soon as they return, we see that it is he and not they who give. This is not an incoherent mistake of the author, nor is it a trick Jesus is playing on his disciples – "first you have to give, then you will get something in return." That is more typically the philosophy of the world.
Closer attention to the text shows that when Jesus asks, his disciples do not yet recognize who he is. They have to give to the stranger who is hungry. It is only by learning this elementary way of giving that they will become receptive so that the new nourishment that God has in mind for them – this utterly new kind of bread which is the Lord himself – will ripen within them. The social dimension of the Eucharist is thus not some foreign element; rather it can be seen as a kind of space within which the Eucharist happens. After all the Eucharist is physical, and so are we. It addresses a real dimension of our existence, an existence designed by God. One can see this social dimension in the story of the multiplication of loaves as well. First, the little boy has to give the precious gifts of his mother. Each individual had to share what seemed like the bare minimum for himself. But what is happening is something deeper still. The disciples who start out to fetch the fish for Jesus basically have to give of themselves. Only those who practice giving begin to realize that all they have, has been given first to them. They only give de tuis donis ac datis – what they themselves have received. We have to give of ourselves in order to receive the gift of God. In the end, everything comes from him. But the gift of God will never reach us unless we have first become donors. In the end, all is grace, since the most important things in the world cannot be made – nor life, nor love, nor God – but they can be received as gift.
With this simple story then, we are able to explain even an issue which has caused violent tension within Christianity since the Reformation. To give everything is to receive everything: this does not exclude but include. It is a fundamental dogma of Christianity that the sacrifice of Christ on his Cross was unique and sufficient for all of us for all time. All that is necessary is that we receive; it would be extreme conceit to try to add anything. But it is no contradiction to insist that we will only receive once we have given. The fact that the sacrifice of Christ is offered in and through the sacrifice of the Church does not take anything away from his sacrifice, but rather highlights the loftiness of humanity since God is shown to be acting in a human manner. It is indeed in the greatest secrets of God that human nature is accepted and absorbed.
But to return to the Gospel: the evangelist develops his image of the Church against a background of recollections, memories, reminiscences of his own and, perhaps, the recollections of others as well. The Church is a eucharistic community within which Jesus's words take on new meaning: "Come and eat". To receive the Eucharist means to measure all the dimensions of what it means to be a person. We may receive it only if we travel the whole road of the Easter Proclamation Jesus is making to us. There are no shortcuts and no half-way measures. If there are, only a distorted Christianity develops, and within it, a distorted notion of the Eucharist. I am not referring here to liturgical or spiritual aspects only, but to what we might call, for want of a better word, the "earthly" aspects of the Eucharist. I am referring to a desire on our part that those whom we do not know, but who need the help the Lord alone can give, that they too should come and eat. It is because the Eucharist contains within it all the nourishment needed for the journey to life, that it may be said to build a community of faith and not just a country club.
I want now to turn to one of the more peculiar aspects of the story of the miraculous catch of fish, and that is the detail that John gives us that the disciples caught one hundred and fifty three of them. It is quite certain that the detail is not added for the sake of anecdotal pleasure. It has something to do with the symbolism of numbers, which figure prominently both in the Fourth Gospel and in the Apocalypse. The Fathers of the Church therefore rightly tried to investigate the possible significance of the numeral. I am not saying we can be certain of its exact significance. That would clash with the very nature of symbolism, and the very fact that it is unclear can be a message in the sense that we should realize that we do not, and never will, know everything.
Still, we are on relatively safe ground if we agree with those interpretations which take into consideration the whole inner thrust of the Gospel, that is, that add nothing new, but emphasize elements of the Gospel's actual content. With this in mind, two interpretations come to mind which I think are worth reflection. The first patristic interpretation is based on the fact that one hundred and fifty three has the number seventeen as its base. Seventeen is the number of the various peoples reported in the Lukan story of the Pentecost. Perhaps it is meant to express the breadth and universality of the Church catholic. There is thus need to make room for all kinds of people in the Church of Christ . There are different dwellings and there should be room for all. A Church with many dwellings and fish so numerous that the nets begin to break, is a beautiful and at the same time a demanding image! It suggests that the first thought of God was not the isolated or local Church, but the universal and catholic Church. "Father that they may be one!" – the universal Church is thus not a foreign element added to the whole just to make it more efficient or for some other extrinsic reason. What a modern, even industrial-sounding thought that is! Rather the new Church gave birth to the local Churches. Luke's message is very clear on this point: prior to the foundation of the individual communities, the faithful followers of Jesus were already a community for all peoples. John's image of the one hundred and fifty three fish may have a similar message, the unity gives rise to the diversity and preserves its meaning.
Actually this interpretation conforms remarkably to contemporary exegetical theory. Christ did not establish an institution as one might found a school or an association. The Church, with all of its incarnational or institutional elements, is not an association like that. Christ founded the Church rather by being the grain of wheat which falls to the ground and dies. Christ did not found the Church as an association whose charter should be reviewed and renewed from time to time. Christ is the present founder of the Church as he forms it in the Eucharist. This is why the Church is not bound to Christ merely by legal ties, but, rather, is supported by him in the community of his being. Paul goes so far as to say that even though there is one who is chosen, all are chosen in him (Gal 3:15-29).
The same holds true if we look at the Church from the outside. God's people did not originate with Jesus, but is in organic continuity with Abraham, our Father in faith. What happens with Jesus is that God's people have their boundary stakes removed and placed at the limits of the human family.
John tells us that despite the great number of fish the net did not tear. The net must not tear. There is one Church of Christ and in it is room for all who believe in him and follow him. The lacerated Body of Christ is not broken: it is the space for our unity.
There is another interpretation of one hundred and fifty three that I would like to mention. It was provided by Robert Eisler, a Hebrew scholar, who pointed out that one hundred and fifty three is the sum of the numerical values of the letters in the words "Simon" (seventy-six) and ichthys, or "fish" (seventy-seven). This interpretation would again stress the unity of the Church and its catholicity while at the same time shedding more light on its historical unity. Christian art has long pictured the single Church represented by the single fish, Jesus Christ. But he linked himself and the unity of the Church to the man whose name he changed to Peter the rock. John's description of the giving of the primacy to Peter speaks of Jesus's entrusting his whole flock to Peter so that he could be its pastor, to feed the sheep of Jesus.
Peter and Christ must stay together: Peter's boat has changed to Christ's ship. Peter vouches for Christ. In accepting Peter, whom Jesus sent, we accept the one who sent him, Jesus himself. Only if we accept Jesus's way of doing things can we approach him, for he is Lord. We are nourished by the pastor that the Lord himself has given us. Too often, Peter's work is considered simply a juridical one, but his task of nourishing the flock cuts deep, to the core of the gospel message. It is the Lord himself who provides us with food for the journey. We need to ask to be included in the one hundred and fifty three fish which swarm in the net that does not tear. We need to ask him to open our eyes, as the eyes of Peter were opened in the dazzling light of that day on the shore of Galilee, and just as Peter did, we will succeed in recognizing him and will learn to say, full of joy: He is the Lord!
Demandons-lui d'ouvrir nos yeux et, comme le fit Pierre, de le reconnaitre et d'apprendre à dire, pleins de joie, "C'est le Seigneur". Amen.
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, visited St Mike's in 1986. The following is the text of the University Mass Homily that he gave on the third Sunday of Easter, April 13, 1986. The Gospel reading was John 21:1-19.