153 Fishes and Related Matters
When Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005 there were any number of fascinating coincidences that surrounded his death. They were the sort of thing that make you go “hmmmm” and (if one is a wobbly agnostic) begin to suspect that maybe You Know Who has His hand in things after all.
For instance, John Paul managed to go to his reward in the one sliver of time which tied together Easter, Fatima and the Divine Mercy Feast which he himself had established (he died on Saturday evening, the Vigil of the Feast of Divine Mercy, which falls in the Octave of Easter). Given the movable nature of the Easter Feast (not to mention the moveable nature of First Saturdays, a devotion associated with the apparitions of our Lady of Fatima), this is as impressive a bit of chance, if chance it was, as you could ask for. However, like so much about his papacy, one does get the sense that such a theatrical gesture must have pleased him as he approached the Pearly Gates. It had everything: it tied together Our Lady of Fatima (on whose feast day he was shot, May 13, 1981), as well as the Third Secret of Fatima (which, in part, concerned the shooting), as well as St. Faustina, a fellow Pole whose private revelation concerning the Divine Mercy so appealed to John Paul II, the author of Dives in Misericordia.
And the weirdness doesn’t end there. Seekers of signs will also find that there was a partial eclipse on the day of his funeral: God flying the flag at half staff. Nor is that all: for it also turns out John Paul was born during a solar eclipse too. One of my readers wrote at the time, offering this bit of homespun exegesis of all this:
Here's an interesting thing I noticed about the upcoming eclipse: It will occur while it is night in Rome and Poland. As night falls on the Supreme Pontiff and his homeland, God has ordained that it will fall on the rest of the world as well.
And though one need not insist on any of this as a divine sign, one should not be terribly surprised that some took it so. Given his devotion to Our Lady of Fatima (whose great sign was the Miracle of the Sun) and her rescue of him (as he plainly believed) on May 13, 1981 (the anniversary of the first appearance of Mary at Fatima), it's hard not to see Something Significant betokened by all this.
I mention all this, not because I have a burning interest in whether God was trying to tell us something through the death of John Paul, but because I am morally certain that, in about 2000 years scholars, picking over the scattered and fragmented record of the early 21st Century and trying to determine what happened before the Robot Wars destroyed so much of the information, will inform us that the chroniclers of the legendary John Paul II embellished the stories of his life and death in a conscious effort to link him with the events of Fatima and the cultic celebrations of Mercy Sunday.
So we will be informed that “purely symbolic” midrashes which associate eclipses with his birth and death were interposed into the historical narrative and that, likewise, his death is, no doubt, “placed” by the hagiographers into the liturgical calendar on First Saturday April 2, 2005 in order “strengthen” the bond between Easter, Fatima, Mercy Sunday and John Paul. We will be told that all of this is purely symbolic theological creativity on the part of JPII chroniclers and that what matters is the spiritual lesson these chroniclers are trying to teach, not the question of whether a historical figure lies behind the John Paul II Event and the supposed “historical data” about his life.
I mention this because the reading this past Sunday concerned the miraculous draught of fishes in John 21 and the curious detail John records concerning the number of fishes (153) that were hauled up in the dragnet. John being John and seeing meaning everywhere, interpreters of his gospel have long assumed that here, as everywhere else in his gospel, John does not record such details because he is hoping to supply grist for Trivial Pursuit, but because he thinks the number 153 is significant. St. Jerome, for instance, tells us that this was the number of species of fish that ancient science had identified. John’s point in recording this number, then, is that Peter and the apostles, being “fishers of men” are being given a symbolic charge by the Risen Christ to bring in all the nations of the earth in the “great net” of the Kingdom of God.
Seems like a reasonable understanding of John’s (and Jesus’) point. What is not a reasonable understanding of his point is the sotto voce caveat that modern biblical scholars so often seem to append to this and so many other stories from the New Testament: namely, “and so we can of course assume that it never actually, you know, happened. It’s just a story the author of the gospel invented in order to communicate a theological point.”
This is a constant refrain in modern biblical criticism from the same sort of people who perpetually inform us that the reality of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is that a crowd of ancient semites were so moved by Jesus’ warm fuzziness that, in a sharp break with normal Near Eastern culture, they shared their food. It’s an exegesis only a chintzy Western suburbanite could credit for one nanosecond, but it constantly gets trotted out, first to explain away the miracle and then as a way of saying that the Evangelist retrojected a spiritual interpretation on this thoroughly pedestrian occurrence in order to make it a forecast of the Eucharist. The basic formula for such reading of the New Testament is “It never happened and here’s what it means.” The allegorical interpretation of the non-event becomes the sole reason for recording any New Testament incident. Whether anything actually happened to spur the biblical author to make connections, see patterns, interpret real world events in a spiritual light? Irrelevant. Nothing actually occurred except that a biblical author had an idea that he communicated via a made up or highly embellished story about a cryptic cipher of whom we can know nothing.
The consummation of this, of course, is John Dominic Crossan’s insistence that the body of Jesus was eaten by wild dogs, but that none of this matters so long as the apostles felt really strongly that the resurrection lie they dedicated their lives and deaths to was full of meaning for them.
However, as Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s little old Jewish lady neighbor used to say to her sophisticated son when he condescendingly explained that the Israelite crossed the Red Sea at low tide, my response to all these expert reconstructions of eyewitness accounts is, “You were there?”
As the death of John Paul illustrates, there’s a weirdness in God’s mercy. Sometimes things actually happen—here, in the real world—that are just packed with symbolism and significance. These things occur, not because a chronicler cooked them up, but because they occurred. The chronicler then sees the curious significance in them. So: given that it was, after all, the Risen Christ whom the apostles met on the shore of Galilee, I have no problem believing in either a miraculous draught of fishes, nor in our Lord making certain that 153 fish wound up in the net so that John could get the point and pass it on to us. If we swallow the camel of the Resurrection, it seems rather silly to strain at the gnat (or is that the net?) of a miracle involving a precise count of fishes.
Dittos for the other miracles of Jesus. The fact that they are pregnant with all sorts of significance does not, in the slightest, mean that the evangelists invented the miracle for the sake of getting some abstract meaning across. And this is supremely true of the Resurrection itself. Blabbering about the True Spiritual Meaning of the Resurrection in the full knowledge that the flesh of Jesus was going a progress through the guts of a wild dog is not “profound”. It’s delusional or it’s a particularly disgusting fraud. Paul knew this perfectly well:
Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-18)
Happily, Paul was much more rooted in reality than Crossan and his ilk. He knew that reality was sacramental, that divine meaning can be communicated by real world events, and that the good news was that the Resurrection as not some gestalt illusion that had only happened in Cloud Cuckoo Land, but something which had occurred on earth in front of real people (including his own astonished eyes). So he could write with great horse sense:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20)
I think John tells the story of the miraculous draught of 153 fish for two reasons. First, because it actually happened. Second, because it was, like all the wonders Christ performed, full of meaning. If it didn’t happen, I would not be interested in what it meant because it would be a lie. This goes, with extra emphasis, for people, like John Dominic Crossan, who waste their time and mine parsing the meaning of a Resurrection they themselves clearly regard as a fraud. Such exegetes don’t strike me as especially sound guides to truth for the reason that people in the grip of hallucination don’t strike me as good guides to sanity. I think it would be wiser to listen to biblical critics who actually believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life than to listen to biblical guides who teach that he is a dead, dismembered fraud—and that we should reverence him. Guys like Crossan need to acknowledge the Risen Christ and his 153 fish and or cut bait.