jesus-appears-to-seven

Last Sunday I was listening to the Mass readings when a number of connections came to mind. I remembered the words of God the Father, directed to the crowd listening to Jesus. Some heard clear words, others heard thunder. Very appropriately, Jesus connects the event with the judgment of the world. To glorify the Father, Jesus must pass through death on the Cross. Some will understand his death, others will not. More or less in the same manner as some among the crowd heard the voice of God while others heard just noise. The mysterious actions of God have a dividing effect. The wisdom of the Cross is not immediately clear to anyone. In the day of Calvary, only Jesus and Mary of Nazareth would know exactly what was happening. For all the rest it was a tragedy that filled their hearts with pain, like the noise of a close thunder that can make a body tremble and fear.

John 12:27-32 — ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’  The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’  Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up[1]  from the earth, will draw[2] all people to myself.’

The “lifted up” word hypsōthēnai has a double meaning, pretty much like “elevate” in English. A person, i. e. a judge, can be elevated to the Supreme Court but it can be also elevated to the 10th floor of a building by a lift. The double meaning points at the Cross but also at the glory of the Resurrection. The verb unites both, the humiliation of the Cross and the glorious Resurrection as one solid action or event. The drawing of the people by Jesus is a different kind of action. The word helkysō used there has a similar sense but does not have that   double meaning. Jesus will ascend to Heavenly Glory but those He takes with Him must be drawn, dragged, towed after Him, like a fisherman draws the net filled with fish. Jesus is doing the heavy lifting, so to speak. Men and women saved by Jesus are lifted up by grace and quite unable to reach the heavenly heights by themselves.

That mystery was thoroughly incomprehensible for Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin and a teacher of the Law. Jesus tries to explain the mystery of salvation by bringing up an image familiar to the man: it will be like when Moses lifted the bronze serpent in the desert so the Hebrews could be cured of the venomous bites of the snakes (Hebrew: seraph, also fire, flame.) The lifting of Jesus will save many from the fire of Hell in the same way that the serpent cured the Israelites affected by the venomous bites.

John 3:11-15 — ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up[3] the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

By the time the crowd heard the thundering voice of God, the ministry of Jesus on Earth was coming to an end. A few years before, near the beginning of his ministry, he was teaching the crowds by the lake of Gennesaret. He borrowed the boat of Simon the fisherman so he could use the natural amplification of the water surface to address the crowd from a distance. After he finished teaching, he asked Simon to “put out into the deep water,” duc in altum, “go to the depths!”

Luke 5:1-11 — Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men alive.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Observe the image. There is a continuity between what Jesus was doing before putting out to the deep side of the lake and what happened right after. The image presents us with the reality of Jesus’ ministry. The Word of God is talking to Israel — and they are listening — but right after that, Jesus goes away with the fishermen. No one knows that his action —apparently distinct from the previous preaching— is part of his ministry, because the fishermen in the boat will become his first disciples. The boat will reappear many times in the Gospels as a figure of the Church. At that moment, the men think they are going fishing. Little did they know that they were being “fished”, caught alive in Jesus’ net. They were on their way to the depths of history, to become the pillars of the New Israel, the Church. The miraculous catch of fish moves them to understand who Jesus is. The miraculous sign accomplished a conversion that the previous preaching could not. As we read the Gospels, we get familiar with the thickheaded disciples who always misunderstand the words of the Master and yet are convinced of his divine origin by the many signs and miracles they witness daily: verba docet exempla trahunt. Translated literally, the Latin expression means  “words teach, examples drag.”

So we arrive to our Sunday Mass readings. Saint Peter reminds the Sanhedrin how they had rejected Jesus and preferred to spare the life of a known revolutionary, a troublemaker named Bar Abbas. Little did they know in those days, that the liberation of Bar Abbas marked the birth of the Jewish revolutionary spirit. Ever since that day, every revolutionary movement has counted Jews in their number. From Bar Abbas to Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky to the likes of Allen Ginsberg, the list of Jewish rabble-rousers is long indeed. Revolutionaries of all kinds have filled the world with violence and strife. On the other hand, the list of true liberators like the Messiah only contains one name: Jesus Christ. He has been working continuously ever since. Multitudes have gone after him. He has filled the world with hope. (John 12:19)

Acts 3:13-15 — The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. ‘And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.

Since the days the Sanhedrin delivered Jesus to the Romans, the world has been divided in two: those who accept Jesus and those who reject him. Jesus was right when he said “do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”[4] But he has not given up on his people, he keeps calling everyone to salvation. In his discourse to the leaders of Israel, Peter was quoting Psalm 4. He was asking them not to join the revolt against God and the Messiah. Rather he invited them to find salvation through the mysterious power of Christ’s death.

Psalms 4:2- 9 — How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!’  You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

One of the fishermen who converted at the beginning of Christ’s ministry —St. John the Divine— spent all his life calling all to repentance, purity of heart, and salvation. He wrote these words when he was much older:

1 John 2:1-5 — My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him’, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him.

John was close to Jesus all the way to the bitter end. Next to Mary, next to the dreaded Cross, John saw his Master take his last breath. He was the youngest of the Apostles but also a witness of the whole ministry of Jesus. After the events at Calvary, he joined Peter and the others in hiding from the Jewish authorities. John had seen the empty tomb. He believed that Jesus was alive but understandably, he could not quite grasp the reality of the Resurrection. That Sunday, the men in hiding received a visit from the Resurrected, and their hearts were so full of joy they could not believe their eyes.

Luke 24:35-48 — Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Having the details of that first apparition in mind, why not compare it with the last? I never tire of returning to John 21, to the great catch of fish. Examine the image: the sun is barely beginning to rise over the horizon. The disciples have been trying all night to catch some fish without success —the same had happened the night before they saw Jesus for the first time— they are perhaps near the usual landing spot. Then they see a man. He is preparing breakfast, broiled fish over hot stones …

John 21:1-14 — After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul[5] it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

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Empty nets

There are seven disciples. That is an appropriate number. In this image, they represent the whole Church. The barque of Peter has crossed the sea of history, floating over the depths like God’s Spirit in the beginning (Genesis 1:1-2) —they are coming ashore as a new day begins but they have nothing to show for their night of hard work—This time Jesus is standing on firm ground. He asks about the catch and then directs them to cast the net to the starboard side. The resulting catch is so huge that they fear the nets will tear. Here is another important word: tear. The Greek word used here – schizein, ἐσχίσθη – sounds very similar to the word for schism, schisma. This is interesting because it seems to point at Jesus’ power to strengthen the Church at a time when a huge number will be drawn to enter. In the account of the first miraculous catch, the boat was full to the point of almost sinking but it did not sink. This time the nets were filled to the breaking point but they did not tear.

The number of fish is also suggestive: 157 which is the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 17. Now, 17 is itself the sum of 10 plus 7, the biblical numbers for material and spiritual completion. The seven disciples are involved in a spiritual enterprise with Peter. It is Peter who enthusiastically leads them saying: “I’m going fishing!” Considering the complete story, I dare to guess the Spirit moved Peter to go fishing, and also led all the other disciples to follow him. The Church will never renounce her mission to “catch men alive” for Christ. When the last day of this world breaks, she will be casting her nets, perhaps in vain, perhaps with poor results. When that happens we must be perceptive enough —like John— to recognize the sign: the empty nets are a sign of the Lord’s nearness.

The eschatological nature of the scene is revealed in the number of fish. In Jeremiah 16:16 God reveals he is going to go fishing for the lost souls of Israel. Amos 4:2 seems to point also in that direction. Ezekiel 47:10 suggests that some miraculous fishing activity will happen in the end days:

Ezekiel 47:10 — Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea.

En Gedi and En Eglaim are villages on the shore of the Dead Sea where currently there is no life, no fishing due to the high salinity of the water. You may think I am dragging an Old Testament scripture bearing no connection to the great catch, other than the mention of fish. Yet, there is a connection. One ancient language comes to the rescue: the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in the names of those two towns, predictably adds up to 157. St Jerome mentions that – St Augustine comments on it as well if I am not mistaken. That odd bit of information was known very early, when the Church was barely beginning its night crossing of the sea of history.

The night of sin ends

John is the first to realize that the man ashore is Jesus: “it is the Lord!” he says.  Obviously, none of them dared to ask the Stranger if he was the Lord because the man did not look like Jesus at all. This was a partial veiling of their senses, similar to what had happened to the disciples on the way to Emaus (Luke 24:13-16).

John recognizes the image. He knows by the signs that the Lord is there in the same way he knew it when the Lord was not there – see John 20:3-8 – John understands through faith that the lesson of the great catch is repeating before his eyes. The first great catch happened way out to sea –in altum­– near the depths. This new great catch occurs close to the shore. The Lord of history is showing us a great lesson: that there will be a great in-gathering of God’s people at the end of time. When the sun of Christ rises it will end the night of this satanic world forever. In the end of days, Christianity will repeat the feat that conquered the Roman Empire. The great catch of fish is a figure of the conversion of the world.

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Naked as sin

Genesis 3:8-10 — Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

As soon as Peter hears John saying “it is the Lord,” he grabs his clothes, because he was naked, and dives in the water to swim ashore. The Sunday after the Crucifixion, Peter could not run ahead of John to the empty tomb, he was too old to run faster than the youngest disciple —his body was worn out by the consequences of Adam’s sin— but this time, he is going to be the first to reach Jesus. Leaving the others to take care of the boat, Peter swims ahead like a fish to meet Jesus. He is naked but that is no obstacle. Adam hid away because he had sinned and feared meeting God. Peter rushed to meet God instead because he had sinned. Peter wanted to be close to the only one who can take away the sin of the world — see John 1:29. The cycle of sin is coming to an end. Peter rushes ashore to be forgiven. At that moment in the Temple, the priests were offering the “first fruits” oblation before the altar of God. This reminds me of the vision of the Little Shepherds of Fatima who saw “a Bishop, dressed in white we thought he was the Holy Father” ascending a hill to martyrdom.  That seems to be a symbol of the Papacy of all times.

Perhaps in the end times, Peter will rush ahead to meet the Lord on the other side of death, to be himself the offering of the first fruits, the holy oblation of the primitiae at the altar in Heaven – compare with Revelation 11, specifically 7-13.

Breakfast

Peter gets there first. Breakfast is ready. The Stranger directs Peter to “bring some of the fish that you have just caught’ and so Peter goes aboard and hauls the net ashore.  Remember, this is the hour of the first fruits oblation. The image seems to suggest that some of new disciples will be called to Jesus’ side through a martyr’s death – just as the vision of Fatima also suggests that many were walking up with the “Bishop dressed in white” towards the cross at the top of the hill.

Peter’s leadership is clear: he decides to go fishing, calling the others to action. He is also the one who swims ashore first, and the one who drags the net off the boat. This is a prophetic model with a clear eschatological character but it is also a compact prophetic constitution of the Papacy. Peter is reminded of his shortcomings, he is forgiven, he manifests his allegiance to Christ, and he receives the holy orders to confirm his brethren.

During breakfast, the disciples eat broiled fish. That is the same kind of meal they have offered Jesus at the time of his first apparition. In that first encounter they were inside a house, behind closed doors for fear of persecution. This time they are out by the sea, in the same places they used to be seen, where anyone could find them. The Lord is present in both places but he is not merely standing there: he is in communion – sharing food  –with them. The adventure of conquering the world with the Gospel is barely beginning but the scene reproduces in advance the prophetic scale-model of the mission’s final days.

You and I are part of that adventure now.

Please remember to pray for the needs of (and if possible donate to) this ministry.


[1] Greek: hypsōthō, ὑψωθῶ, I am lifted up, elevated.

[2] Greek: helkysō, ἑλκύσω, to draw, haul, drag, lift. The same word is used in the lifting of the full nets in 21:6.

[3] Greek: hypsōthēnai, ὑψωθῆναι. Lifted up and also elevated, exalted.

[4] Matthew 10:34.

[5] Greek: helkysai, ἑλκύσαι. Lift, haul, drag, tow.

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