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Diebus Saltem Dominicis – 4th Sunday after Pentecost: Something from Nothing

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In earlier days in the Roman Church one of the calendrical milestones of the liturgical year was the “birthday” of the Apostles Peter and Paul, that is to say, the feast of their martyrdom and birth into new life in Heaven, 29 June.  The imagery of being born is commonly used in reference to the death of saints.  Many pilgrims streamed into Rome for this Feast.  The proximity of the Sunday to the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul probably influenced the choice of the Gospel which is the calling of Peter in Luke 5.

Many of us surely resonate with Peter’s great cry of self-discovery, the recognition of unworthiness, our sins.  Yet, again and again, from nothing God makes marvels.  He created the physical cosmos and spiritual realm of angels when, before, there was nothingness.  He took dirt and made man.  He took dirt-made-man and made woman.  He took our Fall and made of it the felix culpa, the “happy fault”.  In the Epistle readings from Romans 8 Paul describes the groaning under the effect of Original Sin of all creation, which awaits release from that bondage.  In fact, we have a foretaste of the liberation of all creation in the sacraments.  In instituting the sacraments, Christ raised matter to a new dignity in view of our sanctification.  In our Gospel, Christ takes empty efforts of men on their own, laboring in the darkness, and fills their nets with superabundance.  This is accomplished, at Christ’s word: “at Your word I will let down the nets” (v. 5).  Christ’s word then led to another down-letting, that of Peter.  “He fell down at Jesus knees”.  The verb is prospípto, “to fall forward, prostrate one’s self, to rush upon or against”.  Peter threw himself to the ground and bent down towards the Lord’s knees.  This is truly the beginning of freedom.

Sometimes God withholds graces and consolations to try us, to strengthen us, to correct us.  Will we persevere?  Had Peter and his companions, future Apostles James and John, not persevered through the dark night of frustration, they would not have been in the right place and time for their meeting with Lord.  If they had not persevered in their trials after Pentecost, there would have been no Church, the means by which God desired to free us from our sins and bring us to the joy of Heaven.

In addition to their perseverance, the Apostles also had help, as we read in Acts and the Letters of Paul.  We read in the lives of saints again and again how they received not only graces from God but human assistance as well.  Understanding that, by ourselves, we are inadequate, frees us to ask for help as well, thus providing others with the opportunity to do something good.  In the Gospel account, the weight of the fish in the nets was so great that “they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them (v. 7).  They pitched in and helped.  This is not a surprise, of course.  People will generally rally to a good cause.  It is wired into us, at least into our good sides.

Hauling those nets in, so heavy that the boats might sink, would have required serious elbow grease.  We can imagine that the helpers who performed their good work were happy for the recipients of the miraculous catch.  However, it is not outside the realm of possibility that some of them were envious.  They hauled equally as hard, but with different hearts.  This brings me to a take away.

There are those who perform many good works in life, but these works are not meritorious for them because they were done in the state of mortal sin.  Moreover, being prideful or self-centered about our good works will not redound to our benefit.  On the surface, good works will benefit the recipients, which is a good thing.  However, if they are not performed with a clean heart and love of God and neighbor, they are dry.  Pope Benedict XVI made this point in his first encyclical Deus caritas est.  In underscoring that the Church will always be obliged to engage in charitable works, the primary concern of the Church is not “bread alone”, but rather the salvation of souls.  When the salvation of souls is obscured, when the love of God is absent or tepid, therefore “spewable” (cf. Rev 3:16), the Church is little better than an NGO, and probably not a very good one at that.

When human hearts are self-interested, or lukewarm, or hard, our works – objectively good – are not meritorious for us.  There comes to mind the phrase in the Sequence Lauda Sion which we sang on Corpus Christi about reception of the Eucharist by those who are in the state of grace and those who are not.  It’s the same act of reception, but the outcomes are vastly different.

Peter was born into this world, son of Jonah.  He was born into Heaven hanging upside down on a cross in sight of the obelisk now viewable in front of the basilica that bears his name.  At Gennesaret on the Sea of Galilee Peter was also born again, bent down to the Lord’s knees proclaiming his unworthiness.  That is a good starting place for all we undertake.  Moreover, it is a good ending place for all that we do, good or bad.  Our losses and our gains, our failures and our victories must all be returned to knee-rooted, face-planted wonder at Christ’s unfailing love.

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