The first paragraph of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It delighted me when I opened the book on a camping trip many summers ago.
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing,” the narrator begins, noting that his father was a minister who tied his own flies.
He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly-fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.
Theological ponderings and fishing stories intermingled in my own childhood memories. My dad was a fisherman and a minister who put a personal spin on the 23rd Psalm as he assembled his tackle: “my rod and my reel, they comfort me,” he said. On returning from a lakeside evening trolling spinners, he loved to report that he’d “limited out,” displaying his catch for my brothers and me.
Dad admired the fly fisherman’s skill of Uncle Dan, my mother’s brother, but stuck to his lures and bait. Years later, I’d watch as my husband and brothers acquired fly rods from Orvis and Sage while learning to match the hatch on streams in southern Colorado’s San Juans, mountains named for the beloved disciple. At one time or other I’ve affectionately watched many of my favorite men, beaming streamside with newly-caught trout, offering them up for admiration.
During Easter week when we reflect on the appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples who’d gone fishing, I’m always reminded of the opening lines of A River Runs Through It.
Christ’s closest friends were fishermen who left everything to follow him.
In the aftermath of his death and between his gradual, inviting appearances as risen Lord, the disciples went fishing, and there Christ surprised them. Christ never stops surprising those who long for his appearing.
After a night of catching nothing, a man calls to them from the shore, suggesting they cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They do, and the load in their net is so great that John gets it immediately: “It is the Lord.” A half-naked Peter grabs a garment and plunges in, absolutely desperate to get to Christ.
On the shore, the Lord is cooking breakfast on a charcoal fire. He invites them to bring some of their fish over. Mirroring Peter’s three-fold denial on Good Friday, he asks Peter three times whether he loves him, nearly breaking the fisherman’s heart.
The Good Shepherd then gives Peter a great mission, charging the man who once denied him with feeding his very own flock. He foretells Peter’s painful end.
And he leaves them to contemplate their call.
This story contains a curious detail lending to its credibility. It’s the kind of thing you don’t make up. The gospel records that the concrete number of fish they’d caught was 153.
That’s exactly kind of thing real fishermen would note. It’s precisely the kind of detail Greek myths and Gnostic fancies don’t contain.
Like gamblers, baseball fans and television networks, fishermen are enamored of statistics. The adoration of statistics is a trait so deeply embedded in their nature that even those rarefied anglers the disciples of Jesus couldn’t resist backing their yarns with arithmetic when the resurrected Christ on the morning shore of the Sea of Galilee and directs his forlorn and skunked disciples to the famous catch of John 21.
Gus figures the haul could have been described as a “boatload” or “over a gross” or even “about a hundred and a half,” but no. The text is quite specific in numbering the fish caught that day as 153.
“Such,” notes Gus, “is the fisherman’s compulsion toward rudimentary mathematics!”
Exactly. And while Gus imagines the risen Christ waiting around while the disciples quantify their catch, I prefer a less humorous, more likely option, considering their to-the-death love for the “fisher of men.” After the Lord had comforted them and left them alone to contemplate their future in light of his resurrection, the fishermen undertook the next necessary task first: they ascertained the number of fish they’d just hauled in.
That’s exactly what fishermen would do, and it’s one of many time and space gospel details that tell me this is no fisherman’s yarn.
I’ve known and loved a good many fishermen in my life: some who ache to wet a line, some who left everything, putting out into the deep in search of souls. I’ve known and loved some fine combinations of the two, beginning with my beloved dad and including a few fishermen-priests who’ve found silence and comfort on San Juan streams after laboring to support the stretching of souls toward Jesus Christ, who cooked his fishermen friends breakfast on shoreline of Galilee’s sea.
There are many beautiful, mystical depths to this scene, far beyond what I’m sharing here. Jesus, in inviting the disciples to breakfast, is doing something totally in character: he’s hosting a meal for them: “Symbolically, they have…arrived at the dawn of a new age.” Their mission will be to invite all people and all nations of the world to “come and eat” at the Lord’s table. The mystical number of all those nations is 153, “a figure commonly taken in the ancient world to signify the total number of species of fish in the sea.”
Further, “Disciples, mystics, saints and forgiven sinners are welcome” at the “definitive banquet” at the dawn of the end of time. A new shore with a much fuller meal, awaits us in that day.
Those 153 fish are among my reasons for believing what the disciples said about the risen Christ. If you’ve ever known or loved a fisherman, you might know just what I mean.
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You might also enjoy How to Speak of Easter Joy Without Harming the Humble Christ and The Utterly Human Peter: Lord Save Me.
The rich mysticism embedded in the scriptural references to meals is eloquently summarized in Bishop Robert Barron’s little book This Is My Body, quoted above, and in depth in The Great Story of Israel: Election, Freedom, Holiness. There’s always more to discover in the ocean of God’s revelation.