Take someone who hates fishing like me. Actually, it is not that I hate fishing- I have never tried. Thank God since, as Salvador Dali would argue, I hate fishing! Indeed, I hate the idea of fishing. Spending hours idle, waiting for the unlikely event of a fish passing by and deciding to bite your little red hook because it has really found nothing better to do at that moment…. The idea that what saves your day is the dramatic hope of catching a fish that you could buy anytime at the nearest supermarket…. Yes, take someone who has never cared about fishing like me. Even the stupid ignorant that I am know that there is a difference between angling and fishing with nets. This has not only to do with quantity or the number of fish one can catch at a single time. It is the technique which is quintessentially different, almost opposite. When you cast nets, you do not have to think of a positive object of deception. You do not bring something like a little red hook to the attention of the fish. What attracts them is not a visible something, but an empty space, a hollow the limits of which are deceitfully invisible. Fishing with nets is not for bored urban species on vacation. It is for professionals, for whom it is a matter of life and death.
But even with professionals, the basic problem of fishing remains; namely, the bore of having to wait. Wait and wait…Without being even sure that one´s patience will be rewarded. “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!”. However, today´s good news provides the solution to the basic problem of fishing. Next time you go fishing, just remember to take Jesus with you. “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Here are the miraculous nets. One does no longer need to run after the fish, relying on one´s instinct to gather where the fish could be. Wherever one casts these miraculous nets, the fish will flock into them, provided they are cast deep enough.
After almost 2000 years of Christianity, we do no longer wonder why the first apostles were fishermen. No concrete human situation could better describe the proclamation of the Gospel than the casting of these miraculous nets: “henceforth you will be catching men”. Besides, when it comes to catching men or proclaiming the Gospel, I imagine that remembering taking Jesus with oneself is no longer an issue.
Still, this miracle solution generates another set of questions; namely: after almost 2000 years, what has become of these miraculous nets? Where have they gone? In continental Europe at least; that is, in our countries, there seems to be no shortage of nets cast in the name of Jesus. See the advertising campaigns of some very official Churches in Finland! Nevertheless, one is slightly embarrassed to confess that the volume of contemporary catches is somehow disappointing.
The thing is that we cannot help remembering better times. Where have the shoals of small, but vigorous and utterly creative medieval fish fled? In actual fact, Finns need only to go back to the living memories conveyed by their grand-fathers and grand-mothers to conceive of a time when the whole society was centered on the Word of God. This time seems to be gone forever, and one is left wondering why. What has become of the promise of Jesus?
When it comes to finding explanations to this state of things, one can only be spoilt for choice. I would however suggest that the problem lies at the very core of the promise of Jesus. It applies to the proclamation of salvation in his name – but does anyone in contemporary society, including preachers, know for sure what salvation is about? Some claim that everyone will be saved, including those who have never believed in Christ or never believed in anything whatsoever. Others provide the number of those who will be saved and go wandering around proclaiming that there will be hardly any place left after they counted themselves in. Saved? But saved from what? The fright of hell might have contributed to the taste of medieval crowds for devotion and pious practices. But we know better, do not we? We are unable any longer to think high of a God that would frighten us in order to make us believe in Him. Even more importantly, saved for what? What difference does welcoming or not welcoming salvation make to our existence? Who knows for sure what salvation is about? The fact is that it is difficult to catch living fish when one has forgotten what was the purpose of casting nets into the water.
Sure, there is no shortage of good theological literature on the notion of salvation. However, I do not think the problem has so much to do with the concept of salvation or with understanding what salvation is about, after all. After all, members of the Church know that they can always get by saying that salvation is a mystery. It is indeed the mystery of all mysteries. But in the mind of the Church, mystery is nothing vague- it is the most vivid reality, although it is an invisible one.
Brothers and sisters, let us face the truth: if salvation is reduced to something very vague in our heads, it is not because our minds know too little about it, but because our hearts are divided. As much as one cannot be in two places at the same time, two nets cannot catch the same fish. The truth is that the attention of our mind and the desires of our hearts often find themselves caught in nets that have little to do with the invisible net of Christ´s salvation. The truth is that we know but too well where our salvation lies, but that we hesitate to go in a direction that seems so opposite to a sea of little and bright -so bright…- red hooks. Our foggy understanding of salvation comes from our taste for foggy environments – those places and moments where one can do whatever one feels like doing since one is supposed to be seen by no one, not even oneself. True, we are so much caught inside these visible nets, networks and other internets that we are tempted to despair of ever being able to flee in the direction of our salvation again.
To all those who are tempted by despair, including those who have to announce salvation to others, let me announce the good news hidden in our common despair. Indeed, we would not be tempted by despair if we were not conscious that going after all these little bright red hooks brings us nowhere and separates us from the real joy of our existence. The good news is that the good news has been cast deep inside us, so deep that nobody will ever be able to prevent us from fleeing into its direction – fleeing back towards our own freedom. Christ is there, because he is the first who has freely descended into the abyss. Christ is waiting there for us, because he is the first to have vanquished the abyss. Christ will free us, because he is the first risen among the sons of men. ”
Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” The decision to hope in Christ in spite of our iniquities is our most intimate decision. What a preacher know is that this hope cannot be vain, because it is in order to bestow his life to the sons of men that Christ went down into hell and rose from. That which upholds preachers and carries them all the way through is the conviction that they convey a message which is infinitely greater and more powerful than their personal weaknesses and iniquities: “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain”, as Paul declares in his epistle to the Corinthians.This is the good news of eternal life, of which salvation consists. “So we preach and so you believed”.
Lent will start in a few days. This is the chance that the Church every year offers us to renew with our most intimate freedom. At whatever stage of our existence we are, whatever be the physical, moral and spiritual challenges we are asked to deal with, we are given the opportunity to delve deep inside us. As we make repentance for our evil deeds, we are given to rediscover the place where the nets of Christ´s salvation have been cast in us. If we manage to do just this, there is little doubt we will experience the salvation of Christ as the most vivid, albeit mysterious, reality again. And whatever the volume of fish they catch, the least among Christ´s fishermen will be able to declare together with Paul, the least among the apostles, that they have not toiled in vain.
Antoine Levy OP, Helsinki