“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” This line from the words of Isaiah in our first reading has long been a personal favorite. As I reflected on today’s reading, though, I discovered the line that precedes it: “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.” In many ways it’s simply a rephrasing of the same idea.
The wonder of the Sacred Scriptures is that they’re the living word of God. We hear them differently depending on what is happening in our lives, on what kind of mood we’re in, even on how closely we’re paying attention or not while they’re being proclaimed at Mass. And then sometimes God hits us with a line of Scripture in the manner of what a friend describes as “the divine clue-by-four.”
Today’s Gospel is the familiar call of the Galilean fisherman. Jesus invites them to leave their boats and nets and follow him. At different times in our lives, we might think they’re crazy. At other times, we think they’d be crazy not to follow his call. And then it dawns on us that the Lord calls us in much the same manner.
St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, encourages people to place themselves imaginatively in the stories from the Gospels, using all of their senses to enter into the experience of Jesus and the disciples. This passage is a common one to use for such a practice. The hot sun, the smell of fish, the breeze off the sea, the grittiness of the sand, the texture of the fishing nets, the rough wood of the boats—all these details make it easy to imagine what it was like for those fishermen who became Jesus’ first disciples.
But sometimes those very details that help us imagine a time two thousand years ago can keep us from seeing ourselves in the same boat, as it were. For most of us, our lives are spent indoors, in offices and cubicles, in trucks and cars, operating heavy machinery or delicate medical instruments. And more an more of our time is spent with our hands on a keyboard and our eyes on an LCD screen.
It’s easy to romanticize the life of a first-century fisherman because it’s so far removed from our everyday lives. Most people in the first century had few occupational choices. But work is work. And no matter what we do our how many choices we had or even have in what we do to earn our daily bread, the day-to-day experience is going to have ups and downs, periods of great satisfaction and dry spells of boredom and frustration. I suspect it was the same for those first-century fishermen. We think of them as being dedicated to their work, their nets, their father and coworkers. But maybe at the time Jesus came along the beach, they were having a bad day and were eager for a change. Only later did they discover what they had traded in their nets to embrace.
One thing is certain in all of this: God may not pay very close attention to what we’re doing when he calls us. It’s up to us to hear the call, perhaps trading something we love for something we will come to love more, perhaps finding a welcome escape from a situation that has become difficult. God chooses to call us. It’s our choice to hear and to follow.