I have a memory from when I was a child—probably about 3 or 4 years of age—of my father, who was standing on the dock edge, handing me to my uncle who was standing on a barge. It was very frightening for me because I had to be passed over the gap between the dock and the boat and I could see the blackness of the water below and I was scared. I have always loved water-sports—swimming, kayaking, windsurfing—and I still do, but deep water is still frightening. When water is deep it nearly always looks black, or dark. You don’t know what’s down there and there is the reminder that you could easily drown in it, be swallowed up by it. Maybe it is a reminder to us of death, being swallowed up by something greater than ourselves which is totally unknown to us.
Today’s readings have an interesting message. In the first reading the prophet Isaiah is afraid when he is given a vision of the holiness of God’s presence. He is overwhelmed by it and becomes aware of his littleness and his sinfulness. But through the angel, God not only steadies him, but gives him the courage to offer himself to be God’s messenger. First God takes away his fear and sense of inadequacy. Then God says, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?’ And Isaiah answered, ‘Here I am, send me.’ God makes us aware of our littleness, but God is also the one who reassures us and takes away our fear.
In the Gospel something similar happens, but how it happens is interesting. Jesus is preaching and then for convenience asks Peter if he can use his boat as a platform. When he is finished preaching he says, ‘Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch.’ Peter seems to have found this a bit insulting or even patronising. He was a professional fisherman and he knew from being out all night that there was nothing to catch. Besides, the daytime is not the time for that kind of fishing. He knew his trade. But so as not to offend this preacher he reluctantly agrees. ‘Master we worked hard all night… but if you say so…’ And then the miracle happens and they have such a huge catch that they need a second boat to haul it in. Unheard of!
When Peter realises it is a miracle he becomes afraid, just like Isaiah in the first reading. Peter is overwhelmed and seems to sense the presence of God, because straight away he says, ‘Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man.’ Isaiah said, ‘What a wretched state I am in! I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips.’ God’s presence makes us realise what we are really like: we are sinners and the presence of God’s holiness is very frightening. But Jesus reassures him: ‘Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch.’
Jesus called Peter, James and John to something completely different to what they knew; He called them to follow him and become his disciples and the ones who would continue his mission after he had returned to the Father in heaven. But let us go back to the phrase ‘Put out into the deep’. Jesus was saying, ‘I am taking you into unknown territory, into something you are not familiar with; but I will bring great things out of this if you trust me.’
Throughout the Bible there are many similar instances. God asked Abraham to leave everything and go to a place that He would show him (Genesis 12:1 ff.). He called Moses to go back to Egypt to free his people from Pharaoh; an idea which was quite terrifying to Moses (Exodus 3:10). God asked Our Lady to bear a child in a way that was completely unexplainable (Luke 1:26-38). But each time God did this with a purpose. ‘Put out into the deep, for a catch’.
I believe that the Lord is also saying something similar to us. The Gospels were not just written to tell us what happened back at the time of Jesus, but also to tell us how God is calling us now. The Lord is saying to us not to be afraid of ‘deep waters’, of the unknown, of what can be very frightening, because He is with us. Not only that, but if we trust him, He can bring great good out of it. To enable us to grow, God often has to lead us to places and situations that we would rather avoid. Think of all the things a child has to go through as it grows and learns. Much of it seems frightening at the time, until they get used to it and then they begin to discover the many wonderful things that the world has to offer. I remember my sister describing the first time she brought her daughter out and let her feel grass under her bare feet. Initially Úna (her daughter) put down her feet, but as soon as she felt this strange surface she took her feet up again! She was afraid because she wasn’t familiar with it. This is what God is doing with us, drawing us deeper and deeper into himself if we let him. It can be frightening, but it is the greatest adventure we could ever embark upon. Above all remember from both readings that God took away the fear of both Isaiah and Peter. ‘Do not be afraid.’ God is with us; there is no need for us to be afraid.