Ars Praedicandi: Third Sunday of Easter, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

While there is a lovely alliteration between the two words,
at least for most urban Catholics in the U.S.
the connection between fishing and faith
is someplace between tenuous and non-existent.

For those who study the topic [1]
members of U.S. society will more usually identify
encounters with works of art, experiences of music,
majestic scenes in nature, or brushes with beauty
as more of a spiritual trigger than adventures in fishing.

This is especially true for folk from a place like Chicago.
For even though we are located aside
a beautiful body of water,
unlike places such as Indonesia or ancient Palestine
where fishing is or was a dominant form of commerce,
lake Michigan is more a tourist attraction than
an anchor for any fishing industry.

Our social and geographic location
may be an added challenge
when it comes to grasping something
of the metaphorical, spiritual, even theological import
of fishing across the gospels
appearing again in today’s readings.

In today’s pericope from John
at the very end of the last gospel
we hear of Peter and his buddies off fishing:
an appropriate bookend to the first time we encounter
Simon Peter and his brother
in the opening chapter of the first gospel, Mark (1:17)
where they are fishing the same sea, and
Jesus first commissions them as fishers of people.

The language of fish and fishermen
appears dozens of times in the New Testament.
Sometimes it occurs in a kingdom parable (Matt 13:47)
and other times, in an instruction on prayer (Luke 11:11).
Then there are those famous miracle stories
in which Jesus feeds thousands
with five loaves and two fish (Mark 6:41).

Thus, it is not surprising that
one of the earliest Christian symbols was the fish
whose spelling in Greek (ichthus)
was an acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

There is also credible theorizing that early Christian eucharist
could have included fish along with
or even instead of bread [2]
as the staple food paired with the cup of wine.

While I have virtually no personal experience fishing,
I have eaten my fair share of someone’s catch
at innumerable fish fries
and I do remember with great fondness
listening to Norman McLean’s gorgeous short story
“A River Runs Through It” [3]
– you may know the 1992 movie version
with Tom Skerritt and Brad Pitt
that muses on family life and fly fishing,
on lost brothers and the power of water,
about self-reflection and the mission to care,
and about life and death.

As the narrator of this semi-autobiographical story,
McLean acknowledges that in his family at least,
largely because of the influence of his father
– both preacher and fisherman –
there was no clear distinction between
fly fishing and religion.

In often luminous language
He admits that he is haunted by water
and in one magical passage confesses that while fishing
and watching heat mirages dance on the river,
eventually the watcher joins the river
and then there was only one of us;
he believes it was the river.

While ruminating upon McLean’s evocative language
I ran across some materials
that tried to take some of the mystery out of fishing,
explaining that fishing at certain depths
increases the potential for catching fish
and that understanding the local ecosystem,
temperature fluctuation and insect patterns
are also important guides for becoming a more effective angler.
Critical is knowing what lure to use.

There is actually an associate professor in biology
Jimmy Liao, at the University of Florida,
who studies the science behind fishing lures,
especially those masquerading as small fish.

Professor Liao has designed a series of experiments
employing insights from the field of biomechanics
to determine how much a lure needs to mimic
the swimming patterns of real fish
in order to be effective.

One notable detail is how many segments a fish lure needs:
how many individual moving parts are required
to convince a trout that it actually is a small minnow
and is worth swallowing.

His experiments reveal that a lure that is a single segment
only has about a 5% chance of attracting a predator.
But a two-segment lure increases your chances to 60%,
a three-segment lure jumps to 80%
and a five-segment lure demonstrates 90% efficiency.

Professor Liao concedes, however, that biomechanics
only gets you so far in mimicking the real thing
and, in the end, admits that nature’s designs are
so much more sophisticated than anything we can engineer.

Playing on the fishing imagery deeply embedded in the gospels,
the great North African theologian Tertullian
– who himself lived on the Mediterranean coast
a few centuries after Jesus –
seemed quite taken by the image of Christ as the big fish,
the Ichthus,
contending that we Christians are little fishes
like baptized lures, some of whom
have a 5% capacity to mimic the divine Ichthus
others a somewhat higher capacity,
though none of us
will ever be perfectly able to mimic the divine nature.

To paraphrase Prof. Liao:
God’s design is so much more sophisticated
than anything we can engineer.

That is clear in the incarnate Only-Begotten
who, unlike some artificial bait,
deceptive designed to lure followers
into their own demise
for the sake of some deity’s own self-aggrandizement

Jesus did not simply mimic humanity on the outside
appearing as a convincing divine illusion.
Instead, he embraced our humanity unto death
and perfected it unto eternal life.

In so doing, Jesus subverts this holy fishing experiment.
He becomes God’s holy enticement
for catching the elusive love of his own creatures
and in the process allows us to land the Christ
and the kingdom promised to us
as the most prized of catches.

In a word, Jesus was eternity’s perfect lure
whom Peter and his followers eventually fell for
hook, line, and sinker.

Ironically, Jesus could call others to be fishers of people,
to be lovers of enemies,
to be forgivers of sinners,
and to be advocates for the marginalized and rejected
because of what this Palestinian peasant was about,
in his unpretentious care,
his unvarnished honesty,
and his unobstructed vision of Justice.

Tertullian was right; Christ is the eternal Ichthus, the great fish
and we are the minnows and guppies, a few of us are trouts.
Sometimes, when we’re in a bad mood we can be swordfish
or even, God forbid, marauding sharks.

But all of us are reminded in this Easter season that
as Tertullian theologizes,
like the great Ichthus, we too are born in the water,
in that life-giving baptismal pool
over which God’s brooding spirit dwells
and from which we emerged as new creations.

I don’t know if you ever pondered it,
but there is no evidence in the New Testament
that any of Jesus’ closest disciples, the 12, apostles
were ever baptized.

On the other hand, in the narrative of today’s gospel
Peter can only get to Jesus,
to his eucharistic meal on the beach,
to his trinity of forgiveness,
to his mission of feeding lambs and sheep
only by diving into the water,
into that natural baptismal pool called
the Sea of Tiberias,
and emerging on the other side
a new creation
shriven, anointed and fed
like the neophytes here and around the globe
who similarly emerged from the easter vigil
shriven, anointed and fed.

McClean’s “A River Runs Through it”
ends with heart-wrenching sadness and soaring hope.

Ultimately, it becomes clear that this gorgeous literary venture
is not about fishing but about family.
It is not about a single body of water
but the liquidity of our own lives.

It is not about landing the big one,
but about faithfully and relentlessly
dropping that lure into the depths
not knowing what we will catch
but yet committed to our baptismal commission:
to become fishers of women, of children, of men:
anglers for the lost,
lures for the lonely,
trawlers for the troubled,
and bait for the broken.

In the end, the narrator of “A River Runs through it”
could not save the younger brother he loved.
As he stands alone knee deep
in the waters they had fished so often,
fly casting in faith that he might land one more trout
he muses on our shared vocation, thinking:

Yet even in the loneliness of the canyon, I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as “our brothers’ keepers,” possessed of one of the oldest and possibly one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting of instincts. It will not let us go. [4]

In this holy season of renewal
when we are yet confronted by war and loss
family divisions and political ineptitude
we too are haunted by the great commission
of the Christ Ichthus, the eternal lure of God
to mimic his holy mission in all of our imperfections
to multiple the loaves and fishes,
to lower our nets when the catch seems unlikely,
and seek out the lost sibling
willing to embrace that most haunting of instincts
to be keeper of sister and brother,
what Jesus called fishers of men
through Christ our Lord.

[1] See, for example, Nancy Ammerman, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] See Andrew McGowan, “Rethinking Eucharistic Origins,” Pacifica 23 (2010) 173-191.

[3] Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through it and Other Stories (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

[4] Ibid., 45.

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