At That First Fish Fry: A Message for Ordinary Time

That First Fish Fry article by Anderson

Meal of Our Lord and His Apostles, by James Jacque Tissot (1886-1896).

So we now pass from the great liturgical seasons of Lent and Easter to “ordinary time.” Since mid-February, the Church has traveled the spiritual desert of Lent, has reveled in the joyous celebration of Easter, and has witnessed the final culmination of Our Lord’s work with the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to give life to his Church. Yet, before we pass into the lazy days of summer, the back-to-school hope of Fall, and the march toward the end of the liturgical year on the Feast of Christ the King in November, we would do well to consider one small verse from the readings of the Easter season just past, and the message it sends us for how to proceed for the rest of the liturgical year.

The verse—John 21: 9—appears in the midst of the Mass readings on the first Friday during the Easter Octave. Indeed, so momentous are the events both before and after, both in this day’s readings, and in the days subsequent. So, a little context is in order. In terms of preceding events, Our Lord has just appeared to his apostles following the Resurrection. He’s breathed on them, told them to receive the Holy Spirit, and created the Sacrament of Penance with the charge they are to go and forgive sins. The apostles do the natural thing, of course, and decide to go fishing.

After fishing all night, the apostles are heading into shore, having caught nothing, when they spot Our Lord on the shoreline, only they don’t immediately recognize the individual as Our Lord. Jesus calls to them, asking them what they’ve caught. They respond that they’ve caught nothing. Jesus tells them to cast the net over the right side of the boat, and try again. They do so, pulling in 153 fish. At John’s suggestion, Peter recognizes Jesus, jumps into the water, and swims to shore to greet him while the other apostles bring the boat to shore. John’s Gospel then records: “…when they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it, and bread.” Jesus tells them to bring some of the fish they’ve caught which Peter does, and John notes that considering the amount of fish they pulled in, the net is not torn.

It’s an event incredibly rich in symbolism. Biblical commentators over the past two millennia have focused on various aspects of the scene. The 153 fish, for example, are thought to represent the 153 known languages of the day, indicating the apostles were to “fish”—and would be successful in that endeavor—among the entire “sea” of men. The “net-not-torn” symbolizes the Church which would sustain the “catch.” The entire scene, itself, harkens back to the recruitment of the apostles by Jesus, replicating the same miracle which Jesus used to call Peter. Even the side of the boat (the right side), over which Jesus has directed them to cast the net, is significant, according to theologians.

What comes next is also highly significant. Peter is called aside by Jesus, and is gently restored to his friendship with the Savior through a three-fold profession of love for Our Lord. Indeed, John packs so much into the last chapter of his Gospel, that it’s perfectly understandable why many might miss this one little detail, the detail given in verse 9, that “when they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.”

For this reader, this detail is almost overwhelming. Consider for a moment when this fish fry took place. Jesus and his apostles have just passed through the momentous events of Holy Week. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem; Judas’ betrayal; Christ’s arrest, scourging, crowning with thorns; the walk to Calvary; Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and, most blessedly, his Resurrection. He’s established three sacraments: Holy Orders, Holy Eucharist, and Confession. All of these things, all of these great, historical, fearsome acts and events so central to the redemption of Man, the culmination of God’s plan of Salvation, the fulfillment of the promise made in the Proto evangelium in Genesis 3:15, we have witnessed. And at the very last—or, at minimum, at least close to the very last—what Jesus wants us to see is his squatting by the seashore on a clear, crisp morning, cooking breakfast for his friends. The Lord of the Universe, Our Savior, God Incarnate, performing the most basic corporeal work of mercy: feeding the hungry. Not appearing as the King of Kings, resplendent in fine robes woven in golden threads which Jesus deserves, but instead, as the friend of a group of simple fisherman whom he loves enough, not just to die for, and redeem, but also enough to cook for after having done so.

In his beautiful book, The Mind’s Ascent to God by the Ladder of Created Things, St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J., takes up the theme of the super-abundance of God’s love found in creation. He writes:

….the multitude of creatures is wonderful and suggests the manifold perfection of the one God, but much more wonderful is the variety of things which are seen in that multiplication, and which easily lead us to the knowledge of God. …. I pass over the genera and species of things which are commonly agreed to be extremely different and varied. How much variety there is in the individual grains, plants, flowers, and fruits. Do not their shapes, colors, odors, and tastes differ in almost infinite ways? Is this not equally true among the animals? But what can I say about men, when you can hardly find two men really alike in a vast army?1

Coming at the same topic, but from a slightly different angle, there is a section in the then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, Introduction to Christianity, in which our pope-emeritus discourses on this same super-abundance, this same “excess” in God’s love for his creation, which can be found in the actions of Our Lord in the Gospels. Cardinal Ratzinger notes the “excess” of seven baskets mentioned in Mark (8:8), left over following the multiplication of the loaves, as well as the rather extraordinary amount of wine (130-190 gallons, depending on how one calculates) resulting from Our Lord’s first miracle at the Wedding at Cana—an amount he terms (with what I always imagine to be a somewhat sardonic smile on his precise, very German, face) “a somewhat unusual quantity for a private banquet.”2 Referencing both stories, Ratzinger then asserts that, “Christ is the infinite, self-expenditure of God.”3

Allow me to add this little detail of Jesus’ “cooking breakfast” for his apostles as a further example of God’s super-abundance of love for us, his “infinite, self-expenditure.” It is a classic, scriptural case of what our previous Holy Father terms, “the idea of the superfluous, of the more than necessary.”4 It is superfluous in the first instance that God would become a man to save man. Superfluity is added to superfluity that the God-Man would then cook breakfast for man afterward.

To read this passage is to touch the very nature of God’s infinite love for us. It cannot help but move all but the most hardened of hearts to will a response of love to God, to act on the gratitude which cannot help but result from such a consideration. But, how? How can man—so finite in his nature—adequately respond to such Infinite Love?

Answering this question gets to the very heart of what it means to live in “ordinary time.” Pope-Emeritus Benedict states:

… a Christian is someone who knows that in any case he lives first and foremost as the beneficiary of a bounty, and that, consequently, all righteousness can only consist in being himself a donor, like the beggar who is grateful for what he receives, and generously passes part of it on to others.5

And so we have here the formula at the locus of so many of the saints’ spiritual lives, at the very heart of the spirituality of: St.Ignatius of Loyola, St. Jose Maria Escriva, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and St.Therese of Lisieux, to name just a few. This spirituality was first-mentioned by Ignatius of Loyola, encapsulated in his injunction to “cultivate a grateful heart” which finds scriptural voice in Our Lord’s commendation of the one leper (out of ten) who returned with gratitude to thank and praise Jesus for his cure (Lk 17:11-19). We are called to be that one leper.

Yet, I believe more than gratitude should result from a full consideration of the text of Jn 21:9. I think it is worth speculating that the Holy Spirit purposely inclined St. John to include this passage so that we might, as with the saints mentioned above, always recognize that it is usually in the small events of daily living—say, pouring a bowl of Cornflakes for our kids—that we are to bring Jesus into the world. St. John, in the very last verse of his gospel, tells us that, “there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written”(Jn 21:25). I believe this text about the fish and bread already cooking made the Holy Spirit’s editorial cut as something of a balance, a harmonizer to go with all the momentous events which surround it.

Our God knows us very well, knows that we might be tempted to be drawn toward doing the “One…Big…Thing” rather than all the small, little things which constitute the reality of the mass of men’s daily lives; tempted to try to save ourselves through some big act of righteousness, and thereby, miss all the little ways in which we might serve God.

With every Confirmation class I teach, I like to do an exercise which illustrates this point. I present the students with a sheet of paper with a small circle at the top, a small circle at the bottom and two columns in between. In the left-hand column, we list the Corporal Works of Mercy, in the right-hand column, are listed the Spiritual Works of Mercy. I then ask them to estimate the number of works of mercy they’ve done in the last, say, month. Invariably, they’ll put down a number ranging from one to ten—rarely any more than that. We then go back and look at the lists in more detail. I ask them: “How many times have you helped with dinner, set the table, done the dishes, taken out the trash, ” (Feed the hungry); “How many times have you gotten homework for a sick friend,” (Visit the sick); “How many times have you helped with laundry, put away your laundry, folded laundry, etc.”(Clothe the naked); “How many times have you been to Mass,” (since at each Mass you pray for the dead at least twice). I do this for each Corporal and Spiritual Work of Mercy, instructing them to write down a number for each Work. At the end of the process, I have them add them up, and put the final total in the bottom circle. These numbers generally range from the upper 70’s to into the hundreds.

This isn’t just some self-esteem building exercise designed to make the students feel good about themselves, and their spiritual lives. Indeed, quite often the students themselves are actually troubled by the exercise, quite often one student considers the exercise, and then will raise a hand and state, “Well, yes, Mr. Anderson, but these are the things we’re supposed to do.”

Which is precisely the point!

It is doing those things we are supposed to do, and doing them with a joyous gratitude, which constitutes the core of living a spiritual life.

We learn in 1 Samuel (15:22), and again in Hosea (6:6), that God prefers obedience to sacrifice. The word “obedience” rings harshly to the ears of us “moderns,” accustomed as we are to asserting our “rights,” and as neglectful as we are in recognizing our “duties.” Yet, obedience would more rightly be understood and, perhaps, would be more rightly practiced, if we recognized it as simply God’s call to respond to the seeming mundane in our lives with thanksgiving (Eucharist) for that “bounty” about which our previous Holy Father wrote, and about which Jesus making breakfast after all he had already done, should serve as our example.

This exercise I give my students is meant to drive home the point we are to bring Christ into the world by bringing Christ into everything we do, into every moment we live. It’s a cheap way, really, to get to the basic idea of de Caussade’s concept of the, “sacrament of the Present Moment.” As he states in his classic, Abandonment to Divine Providence: “The present moment is the ambassador of God to declare his mandates. The heart listens and pronounces its ‘fiat.’”6

So often our focus is on our own plans, our own future plans, plans perhaps centered on a sincere desire to do some great thing for Christ, that we miss the small moments of the present. We don’t listen; we miss the opportunity to say, “Yes.” Thus, a key precept for ordinary time is to listen, and to say “Yes,” by obediently sacrificing that most precious, yet demanding of all possessions—our own will—into those moments which God has sent us. Indeed, the Ignatian practice of the “Daily Examen” is precisely offered to help us practice this form of spiritual listening. In the Garden, Our Lord sought to do his Father’s will by taking on the sins of the world. Days later, Jesus sought to do his Father’s will by cooking breakfast for his disciples, knowing they would be hungry after a night of fishing—”the (Sacred) heart listens and pronounces its fiat.'”

There is at least one further aspect of this verse to be considered, an aspect relevant to our understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage. There exists within the letters of St. Paul yet another point made which discomfits our modern world, perhaps even more than the call to obedience mentioned above. In Eph 5:22-27, St. Paul asserts:

Wives, {be in subjection} unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ also is the head of the Church, {being} himself the Savior of the body. But as the Church is subject to Christ, so {let} the wives also {be} to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself a glorious {Church}, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.

For the more progressive in the Church, the above is something of an embarrassment, a relic from a less enlightened time when male troglodytes ruled the world. They tend to treat this scripture as one would a bad odor. The traditionalist response is to point to the second half of the formulation to note that men are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church, and should be ready to die for them.

The above scripture from Ephesians is one of two readings which may be used in the Mass celebrating the Sacrament of Marriage, the other being St. Paul’s very familiar definition of love found in 1 Corinthians 13 in which he states, “Love is patient, love is kind….” If my very informal poll of priests concerning which reading is most used at wedding Masses is correct, then the progressive distaste for the Ephesians reading is winning over the traditionalist interpretation, hands-down, by roughly an 8-2 to 9-1 margin.

Yet, in fairness, isn’t the traditionalist response a bit too easy? Doesn’t it speak to the male tendency toward bravado, while at the same time asking something of us which isn’t likely to come to pass? In many ways it asks for the “One…Big…Thing;” a sacrifice which, in our mind’s eye, at least, we may be more than willing to make (especially since the probabilities are so small that we may actually have to do so), while ignoring all the small ways in which we may be called to “die to self” within our marriages. Which brings us back to the verse under consideration. Our Lord didn’t just (!?) give of himself on the Cross. He begins his Passion with the washing of the apostles’ feet. One of the last things he wants us to see of himself is cooking breakfast for those same apostles. Thus, a full consideration of what it means to say men are to be willing to give “themselves up” for their wives should include serving their wives in the same way Christ served his Church. Put simply, they should be just as willing to do the dishes after supper is finished as they may believe themselves to be willing to throw themselves in front of an oncoming bullet.

Having just finished celebrating the Feast of Pentecost, we have had cause to familiarize ourselves, again, with the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Yet, with which list have we become familiar, for there are several different lists? Variations of the Seven Gifts can include right judgment versus counsel, piety versus reverence, or fear of the Lord versus wonder and awe. Now, to be honest, I’m of the mindset which tends toward the more traditional concerning this last variation: fear of the Lord versus wonder and awe. As I cast an eye toward our culture, it is difficult, after all, to escape the conclusion that a bit more “fear” —“fear” in the cringing, servile sense of the word—might not be such a bad thing, and so it’s easy to dismiss the “wonder and awe” variation as just so much 1970’s, feel-good, tripe. Easy, but a mistake.

When I present the list to my Confirmation classes, I use, “Fear of the Lord,” but I explain there are, in fact, two senses in which “fear” may be used. In the first sense “fear” is of the “cringing,” “servile” sort. A fear of God based on the very real proposition that he can zap you for wrong-doing. In the second sense “fear” is based on love. It is to fear hurting someone you love and who loves you so intently. I point out these two senses of “fear” are closely connected to the two types of sorrow for sin. In the first type, attrition (also known as imperfect contrition) means we are sorry for our sins because we want to avoid Hell, and get to Heaven. In the second type, contrition (also known as perfect contrition) means we’re sorry for our sins because they’ve hurt the One we should love the most. I then ask them which form of contrition is necessary to be saved. Usually, they go for perfect contrition—a sorrow for sin based on our love for God. I point out that, in a way, they are right. Eventually—most likely after a sufficient stint in purgatory—perfect contrition will obtain. However, I point out, even imperfect contrition is enough to avoid Hell and, eventually, make it to Heaven.

And then, something strange happens. Pondering the love of a God who loves us so much that even our less-than-perfect response is enough to save (a rather excessive love by human lights), one cannot help but progress to a deeper love and, thus, a deeper form of contrition for our sins, toward that more perfect form of contrition we should seek, and which our limited human reason might expect is required of us. We progress from a view of fear of the Lord based on servility to, well, a wonder and awe of a God who loves us so much.

We come to recognize a God who, in his superfluity, loves us so much that—as has been stated—he is not only willing to die for us, but will cook us breakfast afterward. And, finally, we come to recognize the only appropriate response is for us to offer back a joyful obedience in all the small things he sends us and, thereby, transform “ordinary” time into the extraordinary.

  1. St. Robert Bellarmine, “The Mind’s Ascent to God by the Ladder of Created Things,” in Robert Bellarmine, Spiritual Writings, trans. John Patrick Donnelly, S.J. and Roland J. Teske, S.J. (New York, NY: Paulist Press), 1989, p. 70.
  2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, tr. J.R. Foster. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, Communio Books), 2004, p. 261.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., p. 260.
  6. Jean Pierre de Caussadde, Abandonment to Divine Providence. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Accessed on June 11th, 2014, p. 41.
Alan L. Anderson About Alan L. Anderson

Alan L. Anderson is a Regional Director of Evangelization and Faith Formation for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Illinois and Director of Religious Education for St. Mary's Catholic Church in Metamora, Illinois


  1. Avatar Edward Kistka says:

    Wonderful !!!

  2. Avatar Robbie J says:

    Thank you, Mr Anderson. Lovely article.
    I’ve always felt that gratitude – or being in a constant state of gratefulness, is the key to humility. Simply because it’s not possible to be proud and truly grateful at the same time. If we could spend just a single minute each day contemplating all that Christ has done for us, who could not be moved to humility? Only those with a heart of stone could remain unmoved. God bless you!

  3. Avatar Joe Klapatch says:

    Thanks for a wonderful reflection. Something I always wondered about this passage was the three I love you’s of Jesus and the three I love you’s of Peter. We see that the first two from Jesus were agape and the last was Philio. While all three for Peter were Philio. I am wondering if in some sense the is a “coming to meet us where we are” interaction going on here. Why the shift from agape to philio by Jesus and why the instance on not going all the way to agape by Peter? Was Peter still in the imperfect contrition fear of the Lord mode and not yet moved to the perfect contrition fear of the Lord mode? Curious for thoughts.