Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Host with the Most

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Host with the Most

Article excerpt

Long before I read the Bible, I read novels, and, long before that, my childhood dream of heaven was curling in bed with a rattling good story. I liked the illustrated ones best, but I was hooked on almost anything with a plot, setting, and characters.

When it came time to choose a college major and a graduate degree, I discovered delightedly that someone would actually give me credit for my favorite pastime: reading stories. Entering the job market, I happily gravitated toward teaching literature. Some college would provide me with a captive audience and pay me to read and discuss stories with students.

So it seems natural to approach scripture with the bent of a lifelong English major, literature teacher, and lover of stories. That background may explain my choice of a favorite passage - John 21:1-14. It has everything I look for in a good read: detail, setting, action, characters, echoes of other scriptural passages, and a theme that transcends that of the finest novel and resonates in my own life.

This gospel, proclaimed during the Easter season, describes one of Jesus' most vivid post-resurrection appearances. The disciples have been fishing the Sea of Tiberias but have caught nothing. Just after daybreak, a stranger on the shore suggests that they cast their empty nets to the right, and they are rewarded with a catch so huge they cannot haul it in. When John recognizes that the stranger onshore is the Lord, naked Peter plunges into the water. As the others follow him ashore, dragging their fish, they find a charcoal fire with breakfast already prepared. Jesus invites them to eat, they cook their fish, and, in his customary way, he breaks bread with them.

That stark outline does not reveal the rich and homey detail. To begin at the most basic, sensate level: smell the fresh wind across the lake, the scent of the charcoal fire. Hear the thump of waves against a wooden boat, the shouts of old friends across the waters. Feel the warmth of bread, the sinews of fishing nets.

Dom Helder Camara, bishop of Recife, Brazil, writes in Through the Gospel with Dom Helder Camara (Orbis, 1986): "I like these little details: the Lord had already lit the fire, ready to cook the fish. The Lord is just as considerate after his resurrection as before . . . I love God's delicacy of touch."

The details help to set a scene so vivid we can imagine ourselves in it. The setting is important: Jesus returns to his friends on a shore where he feeds them. He does not appear in the temple precincts, lecture them on law, or hand them a book of dogma. Jerusalem, center of civic and religious life, had not been a happy place for any of them. Instead, Jesus meets them in a scene of abundance, beauty, and nurture, with the dawn glinting off the lake's pewter surface.

For those who yawn when a story lacks action, there's plenty here. Imagine the full nets: wet scales flashing silver in the sun, gills heaving and tails thrashing, weight straining against the nets, ropes fraying. Against that churning background rears the burly silhouette of Peter. (How many times have I told my children, "Never stand up in a boat!"?) A gigantic splash as he leaps into the water drenches everyone. The closing action brings the lovely reassurance of food after hunger, rest and conversation after a long night's work. It satisfies like a full stomach and flannel sheets.

At such a basic, human level, I can find affinity with all the characters. Sometimes, like Peter, I'm so sunk in depression that all I can do is plod numbly through the routine. He had betrayed his best friend, who'd undergone torture and a criminal's death. For all he knows, guilt will haunt him the rest of his life. His hopes crushed, he returns to the only thing he knows, the steady rhythm of casting out and hauling in, the job that had sustained him before he ever met Jesus. He looks to the familiar rut to help him bury the bright promise that had once flared and now lies devastated. …

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