Eamonn Clark, STL
The Sea of Galilee is a very important symbol in the Gospels. Briefly, it stands for the possibility of life – with the Jordan River running southward to the Dead Sea (“not life”), close to which we find the Baptismal Site (hidden in the valley which is the lowest point on planet Earth). To the west is the Land of Promise, to the east are the Nations, especially Assyria and Persia. Canaan was also initially entered from the east bank, after the Exodus from Egypt. It should then be no surprise that the Word habitually enjoys hovering over the waters of Galilee – by natural means (like a boat) and by supernatural means (like without a boat!) – and exercising power over the life hiding in the darkness beneath.
In John’s Gospel, we find the strange and stirring encounter with the apostles by the shore of the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection. There are many signs, but let’s focus today on just a few.
The first thing to note is that Greek has two words for “life” – bios (like “biology”), which means physical or bodily life, and zoe (like “zoology”), which means something more like a fulfillment of one’s purpose in possessing physical life, some kind of spiritual “living-ness.” When the Lord claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, He uses the word “zoe,” not “bios.” (John 14:6)
The Sea of Galilee was and still is a real means of supporting physical life, but merely chasing after sustenance is not what human beings exist for. Mere bios is not worth the effort and eventually becomes futile – we need zoe. As it turns out, the same Lord Who controls the weather and fish in the Sea of Galilee is zoe itself. What is merely biologically alive can and ought to become spiritually alive as well in Christ. We see this symbolized by the fish in the Sea of Galilee.
The Lord has fish already cooking on the beach, though only just a few. As we know, the apostles will haul in a miraculous catch of 153 large fish – a clear sign of the Nations (of which there were reckoned to be 153). The Lord has caught several fish in Canaan during His public ministry – those He is already cooking, perhaps two, maybe symbolizing the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah? – but the main work will be done by the apostles and their successors. They will participate in His grace to help souls come to Him. This approach, after the initial work of “catching” by preaching, pulling souls out of the chaotic darkness of worldly waters, entails a threefold process of initiation and sanctification.
First, the fish are pulled up out of the water, dying to their old life, allowing their nature to be changed in view of something higher which awaits them. This is surely Baptism. Then, the fish are to be cooked in the fire, changing them even further, brightening them and filling them with heat and light. Of course, we can only think of Confirmation. At last, what all of this is for, on the biological level, the fish are consumed, by the Lord… Which is precisely the point of the Eucharist, namely, to be united with Christ in His very Flesh and Blood. (To be sure, that we are eating and drinking Him is no obstacle to Him consuming us as well, though in a different way.)
All of this corresponds rather neatly with the three great ages of the spiritual life as well. From the sea, we have the initial conversion, leaving behind mere biological cares without greater purpose, and even the beginning of purgation. From the fire, we have the continuation of purgation and the entry into illumination and purity. And at the meal, we have union.
Thus, in these few short verses, we see at a minimum a description of the entire mission of the Church, a catechesis on the Jews and Gentiles, a theology of the Sacraments of Initiation, and a fundamental outline of the basic pattern of the spiritual life.