Wednesday, February 06, 2013

“Duc in Altum!” “Put Out into the Deep!”: Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time


The Readings for this Sunday seem particularly appropriate for the Year of Faith.  In the First Reading and Gospel, we see both Isaiah and Peter, heroes of faith, humbled by their unworthiness, and yet eager to fulfill the mission for which God has chosen them.  As we share their sense of unworthiness, we should also embrace their zeal to share God’s Word.

1.  Our First Reading is Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8:

In the year King Uzziah died,
I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne,
with the train of his garment filling the temple.
Seraphim were stationed above.

They cried one to the other,
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!
All the earth is filled with his glory!”
At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook
and the house was filled with smoke.

Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed!
For I am a man of unclean lips,
living among a people of unclean lips;
yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me,
holding an ember that he had taken with tongs from the altar.

He touched my mouth with it, and said,
“See, now that this has touched your lips,
your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
“Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”
“Here I am,” I said; “send me!”

This is the great call vision of Isaiah, chronologically the first revelation received by the prophet, but placed in the middle of the first section of his book (chapters 1-12) because of the centrality of its themes. 

The Church sees in this passage a kind of quintessential vocational call, and employs excerpts of it as an option for the Common of Pastors, and in masses for vocations to the priesthood or religious life.

There is no superlative formation in the Hebrew language, so the superlative concept is expressed in various other ways, one of which is repetition. The triple repetition of “Holy” is a way of expressing, “Most Holy.”  This song of angelic worship is still employed in mass, of course, in the Sanctus.  This expresses the faith that our liturgical celebration of mass is spiritually united with the ongoing worship of the angels and saints in heaven, which Isaiah was privileged to witness first hand.

Isaiah’s first reaction upon entering the presence of God is awareness of his sinfulness and humility.  “Woe is me, I am doomed!” he exclaims, “For I am a man of unclean lips.”  We should also have this awareness when we enter into the sanctuary to worship God.  The Confiteor or confession of sins near the beginning of mass (“I confess to Almight God, and to you … that I have greatly sinned …”) is intended to give expression to our natural feelings of sinfulness and shame upon coming into the Temple of the Holy God.  The Confiteor allows us, like Isaiah and Peter before us, to confess to God that we are persons “of unclean lips,” “living among a people of unclean lips.”

In the burning coal taken from the altar of God, which cleanses Isaiah’s lips of sins, we can see a type and image of the Eucharist, which is also taken from the altar of God, and purifies us of venial sin when it is placed on our lips.  The Eucharist is “burning” with the fire of God’s love—it is, so to speak, a piece of tissue from the Sacred Heart of Jesus, enflamed with love for the world.  The effect of receiving the Eucharist at mass should be to enflame our hearts with love for God and one another, and make us eager to fulfill the mission of the Church: “Here am I! Send me!” 

The mass ends, in Latin, with the abrupt phrase, “Ite! Missa est!” which could be translated colloquially as “Get out of here!  The sacrifice is over!”  We usually soften the expression in English: “Go in the peace of Christ” or some similar formulation.  Yet the blunt Latin phrase telling us to leave the Church is a reminder that, when mass is over, we ought to get right back to fulfilling our mission from God, which is to spread his Good News through our words and actions.

2.  Our Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 7-8:

R. In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord.
I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with all my heart,
for you have heard the words of my mouth;
in the presence of the angels I will sing your praise;
I will worship at your holy temple
and give thanks to your name.
R. In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord.
Because of your kindness and your truth;
for you have made great above all things
your name and your promise.
When I called, you answered me;
you built up strength within me.
R. In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord.
All the kings of the earth shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
when they hear the words of your mouth;
and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD:
“Great is the glory of the LORD.”
R. In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord.
Your right hand saves me.
The LORD will complete what he has done for me;
your kindness, O LORD, endures forever;
forsake not the work of your hands.
R. In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord.

The obvious connecting theme here is the concept of singing the praises of the LORD in the sight of the angels, something Isaiah had the opportunity to do.  Yet we should not forget that at every mass the angels are present with us.  The use of icons in the church building remind us of the presence of the angels and saints:

Catechism §1161 All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. They make manifest the "cloud of witnesses" who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations. Through their icons, it is man "in the image of God," finally transfigured "into his likeness," who is revealed to our faith. So too are the angels, who also are recapitulated in Christ:

Following the divinely inspired teaching of our holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church (for we know that this tradition comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells in her) we rightly define with full certainty and correctness that, like the figure of the precious and life-giving cross, venerable and holy images of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, our inviolate Lady, the holy Mother of God, and the venerated angels, all the saints and the just, whether painted or made of mosaic or another suitable material, are to be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on sacred vessels and vestments, walls and panels, in houses and on streets.

3. Our Second Reading 1 Cor 15:1-11:

I am reminding you, brothers and sisters,
of the gospel I preached to you,
which you indeed received and in which you also stand.
Through it you are also being saved,
if you hold fast to the word I preached to you,
unless you believed in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins
in accordance with the Scriptures;
that he was buried;
that he was raised on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures;
that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.
After that, Christ appeared to more
than five hundred brothers at once,
most of whom are still living,
though some have fallen asleep.
After that he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one born abnormally,
he appeared to me.
For I am the least of the apostles,
not fit to be called an apostle,
because I persecuted the church of God.
But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace to me has not been ineffective.
Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them;
not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.
Therefore, whether it be I or they,
so we preach and so you believed.

Our Second Reading is simply marching through 1 Corinthians; it was not selected to fit our Gospel and First Reading.  Yet, as is so often the case, we find providential themes and connections.  This Second Reading fits with the Gospel in that (1) both point to the primacy of Peter in the structure of the Church and (2) both show the sense of unworthiness that the two greatest apostles felt in the presence of the holiness of Christ.

The resurrection of Christ is not simply some “theological” truth or an allegory with a moral message.  It is a fact of history, attested by numerous witnesses.  The first of the witnesses that St. Paul mentions is “Cephas.”  “Cephas” is the Aramaic name for St. Peter, since kepha is the Aramaic word for “rock.”  Kepha is an indeclinable noun (i.e. it does not take gender endings), but when it is transliterated into Greek and used as a man’s name, an “s” is added at the end as a marker of the masculine gender, creating the name “Kephas.”  The Greek word for “rock” is petra, which needs to be converted to the masculine gendered form petros, "Peter," to be employed as a man’s name. 

By referring to Simon Peter as “Kephas” and listing him as the first witness to the resurrection, St. Paul acknowledges the primacy of this apostle and the importance of his role as the foundational member of the new community.  The name “Kephas,” “Rock,” calls to mind the account of Matthew 16:13-20, which describes how Simon acquired this name from Jesus himself when he was appointed the “Rock” on which the ekklesia ("congregation," “church”) would be built.   The spoken language of the events of Matthew 16:13-20 was almost certainly Aramaic, but the dialogue between Jesus and Peter is translated into Greek in Matthew’s Gospel.

St. Paul lists Peter as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection and himself as the last, so together these two apostles are the “alpha and omega” of first-hand witnesses.  St. Paul calls himself “the least of the apostles” and “not fit to be called an apostle.”  His humility in the presence of Christ reminds us of Peter’s in the Gospel Reading below.

4.  Our Gospel is Luke 5:1-11:

While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening
to the word of God,
he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret.
He saw two boats there alongside the lake;
the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.
Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon,
he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore.
Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,
“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon said in reply,
“Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,
but at your command I will lower the nets.”

Peter is reluctant to obey Jesus’ command.  Who is this rabbi from Nazareth who thinks he knows something about fishing?  First of all, the prime time for fishing was at night, and Simon and his co-workers had already labored all night and there were no fish to be had.  If there were no fish at night, there certainly wouldn’t be any in broad daylight, in the afternoon.  Secondly, the better places for fishing were close to the shore, where there were plenty of plants for the fish to feed on, not out in the relatively empty deep water.  The rabbi from Nazareth wants them to go on a fool’s mission, getting their just-cleaned nets dirty again in a vain effort.  Nonetheless, Simon defers to Jesus’ wishes.  Is it the force of Jesus’ personality?  A “sixth sense” that this was no ordinary rabbi?  Deference for the public prestige that Jesus has gained?  An unwillingness to publically oppose a clergyman renown for his healings and teachings?

When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish
and their nets were tearing.
They signaled to their partners in the other boat
to come to help them.
They came and filled both boats
so that the boats were in danger of sinking.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said,
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him
and all those with him,
and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee,
who were partners of Simon.

When he sees the catch of fish, Simon realizes he is in the presence of no ordinary teacher.  This man has control over the forces of nature: he seems to have compelled to the fish to swarm in a place in the lake and at a time that was contrary to their natural habits.  No one can wield such power unless he has received it from God.  In the face of God’s presence in the person of this rabbi Jesus, Peter is overcome with a sense of his own smallness, and perhaps also with shame for having doubted Jesus’ wisdom and abilities just a few moments before. 

Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid;
from now on you will be catching men.”
When they brought their boats to the shore,
they left everything and followed him.

The concept of being “fishers of men” is not entirely new.  The prophet Jeremiah foresaw that one day God would send “fishers” to search out the remnant of the people of Israel:

Jer. 16:16   “Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.

In the original formulation of this prophecy, Jeremiah’s “fishers” appear hostile.  Yet Jesus introduces a new element to the fulfillment of this prophecy—in God’s mysterious will, the “fishers” that he sends are not seeking to exterminate the “fish” (the remnant of Israel), but now to gather them back together.  The ministry of the apostles is, first of all, to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel" (cf. Matt 10:6).

In interpreting this Gospel passage, we also need to take into account a related parable from Matthew:

Matt. 13:47   “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad.  49 So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.

The "kingdom of heaven" is not simply a future reality, the “heaven” that we speak of in the next life.  As this parable makes clear, the "kingdom of heaven" exists in this age, and in this life.  In fact, it is the Church, which is the “net” wielded by the hands of the apostles (and by their successors).  Many fish of different kinds, good and bad, are caught in the “net” of the Church.  In recent years, the news has been filled with stories about “bad fish.”  Although this is greatly distressing, Jesus warned us in advance that the “bad fish” would be present in the kingdom during this age.  It is not till the end of the age, at the second coming of Christ, that the “net” is pulled out and God’s Church finally purified.

The message of this Gospel for us today, in the midst of the Year of Faith, can be summed up in the Latin phrase so beloved by John Paul II:  “Duc in altum!”, “Put out into the deep!”  This is Jesus command to Peter and it remains his will for the whole Church.  Yes, we are facing a hostile culture.  Yes, there are “bad fish” out there.  Yes, we have been laboring for years “in the night” and don’t seem to have gotten anywhere.  None of that can prevent the Lord from delivering an abundant catch.  But if we fail to rise to his challenge, and disobey the command to sail out to deep water, it won’t happen.  


This summer, join me and Fr. Denny Gang, TOR, for a visit to Galilee, near where this Gospel takes place.  Our pilgrimage to the Holy Land lasts from June 26-July 5.  If you are interested in coming with us, click here or here or here for more information.

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