Friday, April 13, 2012

Peter on the Sea

It's nice when the author of a book ties things together at the end—and as the priest pointed out in his homily on the gospel today, St. John is such an author.  In the final chapter of John's gospel, the apostles go fishing: fishermen before Christ came, they are fishermen afterwards; and so it goes.

There is in that final chapter one striking parallel to the things that came before which the priest did not bring out—one odd detail upon which, in fact, I have never heard any priest comment.  Probably this is because the detail is not explicit in the text, making my extraction of it (at best) a pious inaccuracy, like the crucifixes that show Christ's palms pierced instead of his wrists.  But it is a detail, or a theory about a detail, that has hovered in the back of my mind for some time, and resurfaces every time the passage in question is read.

After this, Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias. And he shewed himself after this manner. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas, who is called Didymus, and Nathanael, who was of Cana of Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter saith to them: I go a fishing. They say to him: We also come with thee. And they went forth, and entered into the ship: and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning was come, Jesus stood on the shore: yet the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus therefore said to them: Children, have you any meat? They answered him: No. 

He saith to them: Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and you shall find. They cast therefore; and now they were not able to draw it, for the multitude of fishes. That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved, said to Peter: It is the Lord. Simon Peter, when he heard that it was the Lord, girt his coat about him, (for he was naked,) and cast himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the ship, (for they were not far from the land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes. As soon then as they came to land, they saw hot coals lying, and a fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus saith to them: Bring hither of the fishes which you have now caught. 

Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land, full of great fishes, one hundred and fifty-three. And although there were so many, the net was not broken. Jesus saith to them: Come, and dine. And none of them who were at meat, durst ask him: Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord.  John 21:1-12.

Isn't there something odd about this?  No, not the number of fish in the net.  Not the fact that Jesus already has dinner going.  Not even the reversal of Peter's sentiments from the previous miraculous draught ("Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord," Luke 5:8).  Read that second paragraph again.

Right then.  Now, from the middle of Matthew ...

And forthwith Jesus obliged his disciples to go up into the boat, and to go before him over the water, till he dismissed the people. And having dismissed the multitude, he went into a mountain alone to pray. And when it was evening, he was there alone. But the boat in the midst of the sea was tossed with the waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking upon the sea. 

And they seeing him walk upon the sea, were troubled, saying: It is an apparition. And they cried out for fear. And immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying: Be of good heart: it is I, fear ye not. And Peter making answer, said: Lord, if it be thou, bid me come to thee upon the waters. And he said: Come. And Peter going down out of the boat, walked upon the water to come to Jesus. But seeing the wind strong, he was afraid: and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying: Lord, save me. 

And immediately Jesus stretching forth his hand took hold of him, and said to him: O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt? And when they were come up into the boat, the wind ceased. And they that were in the boat came and adored him, saying: Indeed thou art the Son of God.  Matthew 14:22-33.

I don't know how deep the sea of Tiberias is today, much less how deep it was in the time of Christ; and there are probably some tiresome archeologists out there who will tell me that it wasn't deep at all; or perhaps there will be historians to point out that the way the apostles were fishing, or the time of year, or Peter's girding his clothes, or some other such detail indicates that the boat was near to shore.  Or perhaps there is a Greek scholar who will tell me that, in the original tongue, the phrase "cast himself into the sea" idiomatically means something more like "hopped casually into the really shallow water."  And of course, it's possible that in three years of land duty with Jesus, Peter the fisherman has learned how to swim.

But I don't think so.  No, I think this is what happened.  Previously, when the disciples were in the boat across the water, Jesus came walking to them, as an indication of his divinity.  Now he has raised Lazarus from the dead; has risen from the dead himself; they have touched his hands and side: they know that He is Divine.  Previously, when the disciples were in the boat across the water, Jesus came walking to them, the way a mother comes to her children who cannot yet walk, to help them and to teach them how.  Now Jesus, as he prepares to ascend to his Father, is imparting his power to the apostles who will be his representatives on earth.  They will have to get along—not altogether without him; that would be impossible; but without his visible support.  He can no longer come to them; they will have to come to him.

That is what is happening generally.  As to Peter: he is being transformed, from the sinful man who wished the Lord to depart, who begged Jesus not to die, who would not have his feet washed, who would not own his discipleship—into the man who will lead a Church militant with such pesky bishops as Paul and such dastardly opponents as Nero.  Fortunate for all of us, and not just Peter, that he's received the Holy Spirit!  And such is the grace that he has received now, such is his faith, that when John tells him "It is the Lord," he doesn't question.  He doesn't hesitate.  There is no "if it be thou, bid me come."  He simply "cast[s] himself into the sea."

I don't imagine him swimming.  He's running on water.  And he's so eager to see Jesus he doesn't even realize it.

Implausible, because St. John doesn't mention the miracle?  But there is so much that the gospels leaves out; of the things Jesus did, St. John speculates that "if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written."

So, if I ever get around to making that movie of the life of Christ, you know what to look for ten minutes from the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment