For us – the spiritual descendants of the Disciples – it isn’t possible to know quite what the earthly Christ looked like. There are aspects of the physical Jesus that the Holy Spirit has seen fit to omit from Scripture. But back then, these constant companions of Christ will have known Him very well. They were His followers in the spiritual and the physical sense. They were like family.
Several times, though, the Disciples did not recognize the post-resurrection Jesus. One such occurrence is in today’s Gospel. Jesus, from on the shore, was close enough to the men in the boat to have a dialogue with them. So how is it that they did not fully recognize Him at first? It is the same in other cases, including for the two Disciples on the Road to Emmaus, when Jesus spent a long time in close conversation – even talking about His own fulfilment of Scripture – with these unknowing men – these men who adored and loved Him, yet oblivious to the very presence of their Lord and Saviour.
In each of these cases, the presence of Christ among them plays out as an unveiling, an epiphany, a drawing back of the curtain over a certain timescale. “It is the Lord”, came the cry. In Peter’s case, He realized when He was in the boat. In the case of the other Disciples there, the Gospel tells us that, once ashore, they ‘knew quite well it was the Lord.’ For the pair travelling on the road to Emmaus, the curtain was drawn back as they sat and shared a meal together. Still earlier, on the morning of the resurrection, it was the women who brought the news to the Disciples, yet they could not quite believe it, not until He appeared to them later.
We may think that it was so much easier for the Disciples to believe back then – when He was present corporeally among them – much easier than it is for us now, who do not see Him before us. But this is not the case, because there were still many who did not quite recognize Him – not at first – when He appeared to them. And even before His Passion and death, many of His followers turned away from Him, and others would b=never believe in the first place.
The concept of recognizing the post-resurrection Jesus is a mysterious one. It is about faith, certainly, and here we can learn from Christ’s post-resurrection dialogue with St Thomas: the hand that draws back the curtain to reveal the presence of Christ is ‘faith’. Yes, even for those first disciples who saw Him with their own eyes, who accompanied Him on the road in deep discussion, who shared meals with Him in the upper room and on the shore. As He said: “…I say this to you: happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
But each of those epiphanies was linked to an act, too. It was the act of breaking bread, of sharing in that same format as Christ used to institute the Blessed Sacrament. Just like on the road to Emmaus, it was at this moment that His followers suddenly realized, and they said: “Were not our hearts burning within us as He explained the Scriptures to us?!” For the Disciples on the boat, they will have seen the enormous catch of fish – caught by the familiar command of the Man on the shore – and recognized Him.
To turn the spotlight towards our own journey of faith: where do we recognize Jesus? Do we recognize Him in the breaking of bread? Do we recognize Him in Scripture as it is read out to us at Mass? These are powerful liturgical acts through which Christ is made known to us. But do we allow ourselves to become drawn into the presence of Christ, or are we like Thomas who wouldn’t believe until he could place a finger in His side?
And so, in response to the physical partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass, we can only mimic the words of that same Apostle: “My Lord and my God.” Yes, we can sometimes simply not see that He is among us, that He has given Himself to us. We can forget that, when we approach the Chalice and the Paten, we are about to have physical contact with the Eucharistic Jesus. Perhaps at these times, we might allow ourselves to be more open, to recognize Christ in the action of the Priest – in persona Christi – despite ourselves, despite our lack of faith. As it is said: ‘Lord I do believe; help Thou my unbelief.’
It was the same for the disciples as it was for the early Israelites in the desert, who demanded miracles before they signed on the dotted line of faith. In this sense, humanity craves for great miracles, it finds belief intrinsically difficult without the hard facts. But Jesus, even and perhaps especially at His post-resurrection appearances – reminds us to see Him in a new way, that is, without our preconceptions, without our own detailed conditions. Such faith requires a true and meaningful redaction of one’s self, as John the Baptist testified when he said “He must become greater, I must become less.” Accepting Christ’s presence is an act of faith that must become part-and-parcel of humility – the will and the act of placing ourselves before Him without trying to script the dialogue, without driving the sacred relationship through our own mechanisms of moderation.
With this in our minds, let us turn to our life outside the liturgical sphere. Who is the Man on the shore of our life? In whom do we recognize the presence of Jesus?
When do we, in our everyday lives, plunge eagerly into the waters of communion with Christ, ‘overcome with joy’ (as the Eucharistic Prayer has it), and thinking of nothing but union with Him?
How do we allow Christ to make us that man on the shoreline of our neighbour, standing on that rocky shore of their lives? Rocky? Yes, because we like the Apostles have to deal with failure and hardship and oppression. When are we that Christ for other people, that shining light of lasting hospitality, that welcome harbour of the heavenly home?