James Tissot’s painting of the great draught of fish portrays an early miracle in Luke’s Gospel. Unlike Jesus’ prior acts of exorcism and physical healing, we may feel more able to relate to this story. Perhaps it’s less difficult to imagine, and more explainable in terms of timing and old-fashioned luck. But this is just the point. Luke’s story is not about fishing. Nor is it about how good fortune can change our attitude. Instead, Luke tells this story because of its powerful metaphorical significance, which we need to ‘unfold.’
Jesus encounters a crowd at the edge of the sea. Luke describes the people as eager to hear the word of God. Jesus begins teaching them and a group of fishermen by the shore. But though they listen, nothing seems to sink in until some of them actively participate in what he is teaching. The spiritual writer, John Shea, helps us appreciate the heart of this story ~ that listening to the Word is not enough in itself. And the power of the Word is not unleashed until we are caught by it. The Word that Jesus shares is not just a bunch of rules, or doctrine to be memorized. He teaches so as to bring light to darkness, and life to what has died. And he does this precisely to illumine darkened hearts and minds, and motivate faltering willfulness. All this, so that people might actually change how they live. John Shea’s special insight is this: that “when fish are caught, they move from the darkness beneath the sea, into” the light above. Shea’s observation becomes all the more meaningful when we recall that the ancient secret symbol for Christians and churches was a fish.
This is symbolism that we should want to recover. Particularly if we remember Israel’s historic ambivalence about the sea, and its depths. The story of Jonah comes to mind, and the beautiful poetry of the second chapter. There, Jonah gives voice to the experience of being trapped in the depths of the ocean among the kelp and the weeds. For a land-based people, who spent long periods as nomadic shepherds, the sea was the worst place where Israelites might end up. Remember the Exodus, and how God’s people marveled at the way the “fathomless deep” overwhelmed their enemies, who “sank into the depths like a stone.” This is also why the Gospel ‘calming of the storm’ episodes are so memorable. For Jesus exhibits the power of God to tame the most fearful aspects of nature, and bring order out of watery chaos.
Sensitive to the ‘depths’ of this symbolism, we are more likely to be ‘caught by the Word.’
I would like to acknowledge my dependence upon John Shea’s commentary for many of the insights I offer here (see his book, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Luke, Year C).
This post is based on my homily for Sunday, February 3, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.
I am rather a novice at art history, so I had to ask my friend about both articles. Here’s one piece from her commentary: But I think that as an old man Michelangelo would have loved [your comment] about muscles (and bones) and the lack of them suggesting dimensions of the incarnation. He wrote some profound essays and poems in which creation and incarnation, stone and the slow revealing of art are intertwined. One of my favourite images from the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel (painted by Michelangelo as an old man) is St Bartholomew – a well-muscled hero in heaven who holds his own limp earthly skin.
And he’s holding the flensing knife in his hand!
So much to learn. Thank you for giving us nudges in a helpful direction.
Thank you for sharing your friend’s perception related to this, and for your encouragement. I, too, find that St. Bartholomew image captivating.
I especially appreciated your reference to calming the sea in the light (?) of the O.T. fear of the sea as Rahab, chaos, etc. The painting reminds me of Michaelangelo’s and other artist’s paintings that portray the saints with very, very real human bodies–very muscular. I just checked something and found this which I found interesting: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/style/1988/10/09/the-muscular-mastery-of-michelangelo/d78578c4-90cb-44dd-892e-6330fb686a08/?utm_term=.490859bd09e8
Thank you for this observation, as well as for the link to the Washington Post article. I came across a parallel one on the AtlasObscura website yesterday ~ “A Detail You May Not Have Noticed in Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Fresco.