FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Is 6:1-8, 1 Cor 15:11, Lk 5:1-11 – The fisherman’s Net; The Awesomeness of God; Put Out into Deep Water The Holiness of God; God’s Call.
Henry Thoreau, of Walden fame, said that the mass of people lead lives of quiet desperation. While that may be true of the mass of people, it’s certainly not true of those who involve themselves in causes greater than themselves. Such are the people in today’s liturgy.
St Peter had many reasons against this disturbance to his routine. He knew that night- time was the best time for fishing, and this was morning. He knew tides and times as only long- time fishermen do, and this wasn’t the right moment. He had worked hard all night and caught nothing (v. 5), and he was tired. But he gave an admirable response, which amounted to saying, “If you say so, I’ll do it.” And he did. The result? They caught such a great number of fish that their nets were tearing (v.6).
Peter had witnessed miracles of Jesus before – healing, including the cure of his mother- in- law, but he didn’t know medicine; the changing of water into wine, but he wasn’t a physicist. But those miracles didn’t reach him as much as this one did. He did know fishing, and he could testify that what he had just experienced was extremely unusual. To recognize a miracle – or a person – one must have an eye that really sees. Many people had seen apples fall before Isaac Newton did, but Newton saw it and came up with the law of gravity; many people had seen kettles of water boil before James Watt did, but Watt saw it and came up with the steam engine. Peter was so overwhelmed that he fell at Jesus’ knees and asked the Lord to leave him, for he was a sinful man (v. 8). When at the beginning Jesus had told him to put out into deep water, Peter had called him “Master”. Now, reflecting his awe, he called him “Lord”. Peter’s sense of God’s awesome presence was intimate – as intimate as the call of Isaiah in today’s First Reading. Isaiah’s summons had all the elements of vocation – God’s call, the individual’s misgivings, God’s reassurance, the commission for a task, and the individual’s faith acceptance of the call. Isaiah, terrified when he remembered the sinfulness of himself and his people, dreamed of six-winged celestial beings called Seraphim singing before God, “Holy, holy, holy” (v.3).
Holiness is the essential quality of God. The word indicates God’s utter transcendence, His complete apartness from anything sinful, and the mystery which belongs to God alone. The threefold repetition stresses the superlative. We repeat these words before the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass as a reminder that we’re about to experience the awesome presence of the all-holy God. The Seraphim’s song concluded, “the earth is filled with his glory!” – God’s glory being the radiation of His holiness upon the world, especially people. As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is people fully alive.” Isaiah showed the impressiveness of it all by speaking of the place shaking and the house being filled with smoke (v. 4). The smoke, a sign of the divine presence, was reminiscent of the clouds which surrounded God on Mount Sinai.
Popular belief had it that to see God would lead to one’s death. A person couldn’t see God and live (Ex 33:20). So the reaction of Isaiah, who was overwhelmed by his personal unworthiness, was almost humorous, “I’m doomed! (v. 5). Then God took the initiative, as He does with all unworthiness. He had one of the Seraphim take one of the coals burning for the incense at the altar (v. 6) and touch Isaiah’s mouth with it (v. 7). Isaiah was thus symbolically purified to be worth of his calling to speak as God’s prophets. Finally, in the ancient imagery of God enthroned above the firmament and holding court with His heavenly advisors, God asked, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” (v. 8). And Isaiah, now readied, answered with wholehearted generosity, “Here I am, send me!”
The vision is aptly modernized in a poem that updates God’s call to all of us (from Marriage Encounter, Fond du Lac, Wis.):
And I said who me?
And He said yes, you.
And I said
But I’m not ready yet
And there is company coming
And I can’t leave the kids
And you know there’s no one to take my place.
And He said you’re stalling.
And the Lord said go
And I said but I don’t want to
And He said I didn’t ask if you wanted to
And I said
Listen I’m not the kind of person
To get involved in controversy
Besides my father won’t like it
And what will my neighbours think?
And He said baloney.
And yet a third time the Lord said go
And I said do I have to?
And He said do you love Me?
And I said
Look, I’m scared people are going to hate me
And cut me up in little pieces.
I can’t take it all by myself.
And He said where do you think I’ll be?
And the Lord said go
And I sighed
Here I am, send me.
There’s another commemoration of Isaiah’s impressive reverie at Mass. The minister, just before he reads the Gospel, prays quietly: “Almighty God, cleanse my heart and my lips that I may worthily proclaim your Gospel.” And when the Gospel is announced we all trace the cross upon our forehead, lips, and heart, asking that our thoughts and feelings be cleansed and made worthily to receive God’s word and our lips able to proclaim it. As with Isaiah, God took the initiative with Peter. Seeing that Peter’s feeling of unworthiness was not unwillingness, Jesus advises him not to be afraid, and added that from now on he as a fisherman would have the lifelong vocation of catching people (v. 10). No matter what Peter’s life had been up to this point, God could make all things new, even to change unworthiness. Then, in contrast to the beginning when Simon to go a short distance from the shore and then into deep water, the elegant conclusion tell us that they brought their boats back to the shore (v. 11). The disciples now left everything and became Jesus’ full- time followers- a brief summary of what must have been a long and gradual process. Like Isaiah and Peter, St Paul also had a sense of awe and of unworthiness before
God, for having hated Jesus and his Church. In fact, when we look at the Apostles, we find that none of them had much native talent or ability- with the possible exception of Judas Iscariot. But God often chooses the foolish to put to shame the so-called “worldly wise”. He called a great sinner, Augustine, to be a bishop, doctor of the Church, and saint; he called an adversary of Augustine, a razorpenned intellectual, to be the great Saint Jerome; he called Thomas Aquinas, judged by his peers to be a “dumb ox”, to be a great theologian and saint; he called a simple man like St John Vianney to be the patron of the diocesan clergy; and he called a relatively unintelligent man like Joseph of Cupertino to be a saintly priest. Today’s section of Paul’s letter to Corinthians was prompted by the belief among some Corinthians that the resurrection of the body is impossible. In today’s passage, Paul appeals to the testimony of those who saw the risen Christ, mentioning only the appearances to those persons whom Jewish law would accept as witnesses.
As in the Gospel, Paul makes Peter preeminent by saying that Jesus had appeared to him before he came to the rest of the Apostles (v. 5). Thus did Jesus extend his love and graciousness toward one who had denied him in his greatest need. But Peter in his regret had also cried his heart out. And Jesus’ great wish was to comfort Peter in his pain. A love is truly outstanding if it thinks more of the heartbreak of one who has hurt than of the hurt that the other has inflicted. And the more than five hundred to whom the risen Jesus appeared – can you imagine their reaction to an appearance by the one who had been crucified and buried but who was now risen and standing in their midst? Those people, who had been crushed by his death, would be thunderstruck. They would greet him not by polite applause, but with a standing ovation. They would have jumped for joy, hugged their neighbor, and broken out in laughter.
Isaiah, Peter, and Paul were all called by God to put out into the deep waters of life. Through our baptismal charge, so are we. They proclaimed their unworthiness in the presence of the Holy One. So should we.
Perhaps we’re most like Peter, and perhaps our call is most like his. He blew hot and cold, was sometimes insightful and sometimes obtuse, sometimes brave and at other times weak. Like Peter, let’s accept the risk of casting off from our shore – secure, sheltered, and comfortable – to go wherever the spirit blows, and set out on the adventure of faith. The philosopher Nietzsche said, “Build your houses on the rim of Mt. Vesuvius.” By that he meant that it’s desirable to live dangerously. In our case, supreme love can’t exist without supreme daring.
When we wonder why somebody doesn’t do something, let’s realize that I am somebody. With our whole lives, let’s risk putting out into deep water. Thus we never need to lead lives of quiet desperation.