as one unknown
There seemed to be a kind of odd juxtaposition in the two readings that we had at Mass yesterday (Friday of the Octave of Easter), between exclusivism and inclusivism, at least at first glance. The very end of the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is one of those lines that makes people go “Harrumph” and stomp out of church in protest, and makes progressive theologians and preachers squirm in their chair: ‘There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved (Acts 4:12).’ But we can’t get around it! It’s scriptural and really is the teaching of the church. I was going to baptize the young son of a friend of mine after Mass, and I knew that his wife, who was going to be in attendance at Mass, was particularly sensitive to what she sees as the exclusivism of Christianity, so I was paying particularly close attention, and even warned her beforehand of those last lines of the first reading, assuring her I hadn’t picked them on purpose to goad her!
But I was reminded (again!) of that marvelous hymn text by Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith (which I myself set to music). The main image is drawn from the last lines of Albert Schweitzer’s book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus: “He comes to us as One unknown.” Originally I thought it was referring mainly to the Emmaus story (Lk 24:13-35), but on second glance, it’s actually this gospel story of the miraculous catch and breakfast at the seashore (Jn 21:1-14):
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks that He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings that they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
A friend of mine, commenting on this, wrote that perhaps inter-religious dialogue should be based upon the humor and humility needed to know the ‘ineffable mystery’ that he actually comes to us all as One unknown, without a name. Even his own disciples, who had spent years with him, did not recognize him at first!
There’s something so important about that historical moment, that flesh and blood person of Jesus of Nazareth and the decisive rupture in history that was the Christ event. But there is also something radically important about the fact that even with as many facts as we can gather about the historical Jesus or the Christ of faith, the mystery of Jesus cannot be contained in a box. There will always be something ineffable and ungraspable about the Word-Made-Flesh. As Pseudo-Dionysius taught, in spite of manifesting himself by assuming humanity, Christ “loses nothing of his mysteriousness. For the mystery of Jesus has remained hidden. No reason and no intelligence have fathomed his essential nature. In whatever way he is understood, he remains utterly mysterious.”
Secondly, notice that in this story it is the Beloved Disciple who recognizes Jesus, as love always knows. There is a certain knowledge that one cannot have without that bond of love, without that mysterious commitment even in uncertainty. And isn’t it true that even with the people that we love and know the best there are still these moments along the way when we catch a glimpse of something new, even after many years, and the mysteriousness of personhood deepens? And the same applies to our relationship with Jesus. I remember the first time I heard the music of this group called Aradhna, I thought I had met Jesus again for the first time. When I read Jose Pagola’s book Jesus: An Historical Approximation, I felt like I had met Jesus again for the first time. Even in Reza Azlan’s book Zealot (which I strongly do not recommend), as much as I disagreed with his premise and his conclusions, there was still a glimpse of something new in someone that I thought I knew well, and the love deepens.
And finally, flowing from that love, from that “personal relationship” of what the Indians call bhakti or devotion, as Schweitzer says, “they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” Bede Griffiths had a wonderful teaching about this. He said that in a sense, the experience of the ultimate truth is going to be different for each person, “since each person is a unique image of God, a unique reflection of the one eternal light and love.” So, yes, ‘There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.’ But that doesn’t negate the fact that each person (including the little guy that I was going to baptize) is going to experience Jesus, the Christ, the Word, in their unique way. And we’re mad as hatters if we think we got it all summed up.
And that leads me to one other thought, concerning this image of the huge catch of fish. First of all, the most satisfying explanation I’ve heard of that oddly specific number 153 was that that is how many known species of animals there were in the world, so that is a number symbolizing universality. And add to that the fact that the net does not break in spite of the large quantity. Well, obviously, this is a symbol of the church; this is a symbol of catholicity in its original sense, “universal”; this is a symbol of radical inclusivity, the inclusivity that is the heart of the gospel, the heart of Jesus’ message. James Joyce said it in another way in Finnegan’s Wake: “Here comes everybody!” And the net won’t break. There’s room here for all those experiences, of encountering the Word in beauty, in truth, in goodness, even before it has burst forth into recognition of Jesus being the full embodiment of that Word in the way we Christians understand it. There’s room for everybody here. And the net won’t break.
He comes to us as One unknown,
without a name,
as of old,
by the lake-side,
he came to those who knew him not.
He speaks to us the same word:
and he sets us to the tasks that he has to fulfill for our time.
And to those who obey,
whether they be wise or simple,
He will reveal Himself
in the toils and conflicts,
the sufferings that they shall pass through in his fellowship.
And, as an ineffable mystery,
they shall learn in their own experience
 Quest for the Historical Jesus, 409.
 Letter 3 to Gaius, quoted in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, 38.
 One other rather humorous theory relates to the 3rd century BCE philosopher Archimedes in his treatise On the Measurement of the Cycle where he uses the whole number ratio 153:265 to approximate the irrational ratio square root of 3, which precisely relates to the dimensions of the 153 “fish” in the unbroken net, for it defines the height and width of each rhombus in “the net.”