Epiphany V

Anybody can have a bad day fishing. I’ve only gone fishing a few times, but each time I’ve gone I have done pretty well for a non-fisherman: I’ve always caught a fish or two, and once I caught the biggest fish of the trip. I went out on my friend Kenny’s boat once, and after wrestling with a big striped bass for almost an hour, we got it into the boat, and I crumbled into one of the seats along the side of the boat. I said to Kenny, “Is it less than manly to throw up now?” Kenny said, “Nah, you go ahead.” I doubt Hemingway would have approved.

I also doubt that I would have been able to bring in that catch St. Luke just told us about, that surprise catch that inspired some unlikely words from Simon Peter. That catch is interesting in itself. See, the best fishing goes on at night; fishermen on the Sea of Galilee would takes their nets and head out into the deep water, where large schools of fish could be found swimming closer to the surface during the dark nighttime hours. This was dangerous work: maybe they had a torch, but probably they had just the light of the moon, the stars by which to navigate, each other the only form of safety, which means none at all. Those times that they did all that work and took all those risks and came back with nothing were monstrously frustrating, and this is just the way Jesus found Simon Peter on that morning. No catch, tired and frustrated, but being a good Jew and having seen Jesus heal his mother-in-law, Simon Peter let Jesus use his boat as a teaching platform. When the lesson was over, Jesus told Simon Peter to go all the way back out into the deep water, which required a certain amount of effort, and try this whole fishing thing again, this time in the daylight, which made no sense at all. But, being a good Jew and having witnessed some really strange stuff in the previous couple of days, Simon Peter did what he was told, and they caught so many fish that their nets started to break from the weight of all the fish. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and so they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. That’s a lot of fish.

So you would expect Simon Peter to say something like “Whoa, that’s a lotta fish!” But instead he takes a look to his left, spies this Jesus character again, and figures out that he is not in the best of positions. “Go away from me, Lord,” says Simon Peter, falling on his knees in front of the Lord. “For I am a sinful man!”

That was the correct reaction. When we mere mortals encounter the holy, no matter what our normal dispositions might be, this always seems to be the reaction: I’m in trouble. Simon Peter wasn’t the first to have this reaction. The prophet Isaiah tells us that “In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, – and here it is – Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.” Each time I prepare to proclaim the Gospel during Mass, I say a prayer that reads “Cleanse my lips, O Lord, as thou cleansed the lips of the prophet Isaiah with a live coal, so that I might worthily and fitly proclaim thy holy Gospel.” Just like Simon Peter and Isaiah, the priest acknowledges his unworthiness, his unfitness, to even utter the words that Jesus said and the Evangelists wrote down; just like Simon Peter and Isaiah, the priest is a sinner, a man of unclean lips, a man not worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, and he is no more aware of that fact than when he encounters the holy, the true otherness, the holiness of God found in His Gospel and in His Body and Blood. Before every ordination and first Mass I have been present for, I say to the new priest, “Don’t die.” Some have laughed and some go white in the face, because I mean it, and the aware among them know I mean it. They are about to encounter the holy, and if they are smart, they know the risks.

Thank God that’s not the end of the story. The grace of God, in this case, means that in just admitting our unworthiness, in not presuming to come to this table trusting in our own righteousness, in discerning the holy found right in front of us, God let’s us in. The Lord allowed Isaiah to lay eyes on Him just as Jacob and Moses had done before, He allowed Simon Peter to be in the same boat with Him, and He will allow us the same. The grace that God shows us means that not only are we allowed, but beckoned to lay eyes on the holy, to become brothers and sisters with and in Christ, fellow heirs to the Kingdom of God. Jesus told Simon Peter “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” What do you think Jesus would have said if Simon Peter hadn’t fallen on his knees?

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