-Fr. Henry O’Shea OSB
In the early Church when the catechumenate was still a living reality, the weeks after Easter were used as a period of further instruction for those who had been baptized, confirmed and had received Communion for the first time at the Easter Vigil.
Baptism was regarded – and was often referred to – as the great illumination of mind and soul. Along with the sealing with the Spirit in the chrismatization or confirmation and the reception of the Eucharist for the first time, it prepared the candidate for the further period of so-called mystagogy, or instruction in the mysteries into which she or he had been initiated. The initiated soul was now considered capable of grasping the full implications of her or his initiation.
It is, I think, not untrue to say that we are now living in an environment in which any sense of baptismal initiation has largely evaporated. Baptism is for many a social rite of passage or, worse, an insurance against the time when a child needs to get a place in a local school. Along with this evaporation comes an attenuated understanding of the Christian mysteries – a limited and limiting grasp of what faith in Jesus means and demands.
The liturgical texts that we pray and scripture readings to which we listen celebrate and in meditate on the implications of initiation to the mysteries. This happens in every liturgical gathering of the faithful, but very markedly in the weeks after Easter and leading up to Pentecost.
All three of to-day’s readings are taken from the New Testament. In the readings from the Acts of the Apostles, from the book of Revelation – also called the Apocalypse – and from the Gospel of John, the community of the new covenant indulges, as it were, in celebratory introspection on, or joyful examination of, its own beginnings. As in all liturgy, the community reflects on how things were, on how they were intended to be and on both of these with a view to how they might, ought and still can be.
As in all liturgy, each of these readings has to a greater or less extent, three dimensions or aspects. The first aspect is historical, that is, it deals with where we came from, how and why. The second aspect is rather grandly called eschatological (which is a word derived from the Greek eschatos/ last or final) that is, where we are going and how and why we are going. The third aspect is existential, that is what we can do and be now, how and why we can do and be now in our present time.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles depicts a community living with the dawning implications of faith in the resurrection. But this is a community still feeling its way. Peter and the apostles are still coming to terms with what they had experienced. The consequences of this coming-to-terms are immediately recognised by the Jewish religious establishment as dangerous, as a threat to the regime. And the Roman occupying forces are always there in the background.
The book of the Apocalypse or the Book of Revelation is a book of which we tend to be nervous. Its language is too redolent of mystery, mystery in the non-liturgical meaning of the word, that is, something not understood, even a fairly-tale. That is partly the point, partly the intention, of the book. This book tries to describe a reality beyond words, a reality before and beyond and after time. So language is strained. The limits of language are stretched. The Book of Revelation tries to put into words who and what Jesus Christ is and was and who and what those who believe in him are and can become. It tries to put this hope, this life, into words.
From this attempt comes the time-out-of-time image of the throngs of thousands of angels, animals and elders around the Throne of God. From this desire to go beyond language, is the shout, the proclamation, of the reality of who the Lamb, the risen Jesus, is: ‘the one who was sacrificed and worthy to be given power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing.’
Crucially, this gathering around the Throne of God and this proclamation are not confined to the heavenly throngs. All of creation is included in this cosmic vision; past, present and future – including ourselves and especially the throngs of the baptised. Along with the four animals, representing the four Evangelists we see on the panel at the front of our altar; along with the elders in the reading, we are called to prostrate ourselves, to worship and to proclaim.
In all preaching, there is a danger of succumbing to the lure of words, of being seduced by word-play or by bad poetry. Today’s gospel puts us right.
Saint John tells us that Jesus really rose from the dead. Ghosts do not eat bread and fish. Ghosts do not eat at all. Such is the bewilderment of the disciples that they still cannot quite grasp that they are dealing with the risen Lord. They want to believe – but cannot quite make the leap. They remind us of ourselves.
John tells us that the disciple whom Jesus loved – most likely John himself – says to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’
Then, everything falls into place. The large catch of fish after an unsuccessful night – but now 153 caught in obedience to Jesus’ instructions to try again. The seemingly senseless number of 153 is used to show the concreteness, the reality of the catch; the breakfast of bread and fish showing that the Jesus eating with them is truly risen.
But, Jesus does not stop, is not satisfied with spectacle. Jesus is not about show or conjuring tricks. He pushes on to ask Peter – the very one who so recently denied him – ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Jesus is asking Peter, as he asks us, ‘Have you moved on from knowing about me, to knowing me?’ ‘Have you moved, are you moving on, from knowing to loving. Have you moved, are you moving to knowing by loving, so that you can know and love yourself, so that you can become your real self and in so doing, catch followers for me and feed and serve them as I have fed and served you?’
We can believe in, even occasionally catch a glimpse of, the Throne of the Lamb. We can confess, proclaim and worship the Lamb. That Lamb, Jesus, the risen Lord, wants this and makes it possible, but also wants and makes it possible for us to live out this confession, this proclamation, this worship in the concrete here and now.
‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’