|'Come and have breakfast' (Jn 21:12)|
'My favourite words in the whole Gospel!' This is how one of my Dominican brothers referred in a recent homily to Jesus's frankly irresistible invitation: 'Come and have breakfast.'
'In fact,' he continued, 'if I'm ever made a bishop – God forbid – I would take that as my episcopal motto.' Well, here's what it might look like, with apologies to St John Fisher, whose coat of arms seems most apt...
This miraculous catch of fish at the end of the Fourth Gospel is explicitly a resurrection appearance – the third, to be precise (v. 14). A shared meal is typical of the apostolic community formed in the wake of the Resurrection, with strong Eucharistic overtones (v. 13): in this episode, Jesus is on the beach and provides his disciples with his own food, bread and fish (v. 9). This recalls the bread and fish blessed and personally distributed by Jesus at the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Jn 6:9), which incidentally contains the only other Johannine reference to the Sea of Tiberias (6:1, 21:1). Also interesting is the fact that, in Luke 24:43, Jesus eats fish to prove the physicality of his risen body.
Admittedly, this episode in John's Gospel is oddly positioned. John 20:30-1 appeared to finish the Gospel with a flourish after Thomas's strong confession of faith. But, like a Schubert symphony or the Lord of the Rings films, John goes on again. Why?
The best answer, I suspect, is that the Evangelist wants to give a strong account of the early Church's missionary faith, going beyond the personal confession of Thomas just mentioned. The rich symbolism of this final chapter constantly and subtly reminds us that the apostles are called to be fishers of men. When Peter, aimless with apparent boredom, says, 'I'm going fishing...' (v. 3), we're being prepared to see how Jesus's resurrection is a point-of-no-return, entailing a radical conversion of life. It is simply futile for the apostles to return to being ordinary fishermen after having encountered the Risen Lord.
There are suggestive parallels with the other miraculous catch of fish described in Luke 5:1-11, when the disciples are first called by Jesus: the all-night fishing without success, the miraculous catch in obedience to Our Lord's instruction, Peter's spontaneous reaction, and so on. But here we have an unmistakable resurrection appearance. As usual, the disciples fail to recognise the Risen Jesus (v. 4), until the miracle happens; then the Eucharistic meal puts his identity beyond doubt.
The interesting interplay between Peter and the Beloved Disciple will be considered in the next post in this Godzdogz series. Here it will suffice to point out that the belief of the Beloved Disciple ('it is the Lord!' v.7) and the action of Peter ('threw himself into the sea', v. 7; 'drew the net to land', v. 11) are entirely in character, following the pattern of their response to the empty tomb (Jn 20:1-8).
And what about the 153 large fish? At one level, such an exact count could be a natural response to such an amazing catch. As fishermen are wont to say, 'it was this big...' or 'there were this many...' But there is also a possible symbolic meaning. Some have suggested, not without controversy, that 153 signifies wholeness or totality. As St Augustine noted, 153 is the 17th triangular number; 17= 10 (Commandments) + 7 (sevenfold Spirit of God, Rev 3:1, or seven Gifts, 1 Cor 12:9-11); and both 10 and 7 signify wholeness. In addition, there was a view, cited by St Jerome, that 153 was the total number of species of fish. These are problematic, if convenient, interpretations. But, considering that 'the net was not torn' (v. 11), it may be reasonable to suppose that the Evangelist wants to signify the universal mission of the Church, united under Peter (v. 11).
The Church's fidelity to that mission enables us to hear and respond to the divine invitation to come and have breakfast. In the eternal banquet of Heaven, I hope it will not be bread and grilled fish, but a proper, full English breakfast.