Reflection - The devil is in the detail

The devil is in the detail, Photo: ©

“How can you be thinking of something like that at a time like this?”

It is said that “the devil is in the details” and so we should carefully read the small print before signing any legal document or agreement so we know what we are getting into. However my experience this Easter when I have been focusing on the details that are part of the Resurrection narratives has been that great light and energy is also to be found in the small details that are included.

John’s stories about the Resurrection are full of fascinating and intriguing details. The details contained in the first section of chapter 21 suggest that a good title might be “How can you be thinking of something like that at a time like this?”

We have Peter saying “I am going fishing”. In the midst of the tragedy that was the death of Jesus and the turmoil and rumour surrounding a sighting of him alive, how could they have been thinking about going fishing? Yet this is often what people do in times of upheaval. They return to the familiar. They seek for solid ground on which to stand in a world whose foundations have been rocked. The irony here is that what they might have imagined was an escape into the familiar was transformed into an experience that was to launch them into something completely new.

The text tells us that when Peter realised that it is Jesus he dresses himself and then jumps into the water. How could he have been thinking of how he was dressed at that moment? Again here, a deep value in the culture surfaces and is acted on in spite of all the other things that are happening. To be dressed appropriately to greet another was a deep value in Peter’s culture. It is something we also know. If someone important or special to us arrives we don’t want to be in night clothes or old work clothes when we greet them regardless of what might be going on. The deepest values we have can still surface in moments of crisis and provide a kind of stability.

We are then told in the text that the fish caught that morning numbered 153. Did someone actually count them? A man had been raised to life, an absolutely unprecedented and incredible event, and yet note was taken of the size of the catch.

There are many complex and convoluted explanations for the significance of the number 153, including one by St Jerome which suggests that it is John’s code for the universal nature of the church’s mission, 153 being the number of different species of fish known at that time. On the other hand it might simply have been someone doing an ordinary task to allow some time for the extraordinary event he was confronted with to sink in.

Finally there is the invitation of Jesus to his disciples “Come and have breakfast”. Again we might imagine someone saying “How can you be thinking about food at a time like this?” There is nothing more ordinary than sharing a meal. Jesus calls them into the familiar, an experience that they had shared at many points in their time together. In the process he dispels all notions that they are seeing a ghost, having a vision or experiencing a hallucination. He is risen and in the celebration of the ordinary their hearts are prepared to embrace the extraordinary.

Perhaps we will find a similar light and a door to the sacred when we attend to the small details of our own story.

Columban Fr Patrick O’Shea resides at St Columban's, Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

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