When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Notice that once Peter realizes that this mysterious Jesus of Nazareth has brought it about that Peter and his companions become part of a miraculous catch of fish, he is overcome with emotion and falls at the knees of Jesus, pleading with Him to leave. (Of course, with the help of the First Reading from Isaiah 6, it is clear that he is really begging Jesus NOT to leave!) And notice that Peter brings his whole body into play to express himself in this dramatic encounter with Jesus. He doesn’t just say some heartfelt words; he doesn’t just use his hands to gesture robustly as a healthy Italian native speaker might do. He falls at the feet of Jesus; he uses his whole body to express his astonishment and awe and reverential fear in the presence of such a glory-emanating body as that of Jesus of Nazareth. In a sense Peter is experiencing what the prophet Isaiah describes in the first reading:
I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above… One cried out to the other: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed!
And it is important to realize that this bodily position of Peter at the feet of Jesus is repeated several more times in this Gospel of Luke (the sinful woman in ch. 7; Martha’s sister Mary in ch. 10; the cleansed leper in ch. 17), thus suggesting that this bodily position is a characteristic of any disciple of Jesus!
Here is a passage from TOB that helps bring out some deeper aspects of the meaning of Peter’s (and the leper’s and Mary’s and the sinful woman’s) actions:
“Man is a subject not only by his self-consciousness and by self-determination, but also based on his own body. The structure of this body is such that it permits him to be the author of genuinely human activity. In this activity, the body expressed the person. It is thus, in all its materiality (“he formed man with dust of the ground”), penetrable and transparent, as it were, in such a way as to make it clear who man is (and who he ought to be) thanks to the structure of his consciousness and self-determination. On this rests the fundamental perception of the meaning of one’s own body, which one cannot fail to discover when analyzing man’s original solitude.” (TOB 7:2)
“Bodiliness and sexuality are not simply identical. Although in its normal constitution, the human body carries within itself the signs of sex and is by its nature male or female, the fact that man is a “body” belongs more deeply to the structure of the personal subject than the fact that in his somatic [bodily] constitution he is also male or female.” (TOB 8:1)
St John Paul II is reminding us of a basic truth that our culture tends to forget: we do not simply ‘have’ or ‘use’ our bodies. We are our bodies, and when we express the truth of what we are experiencing deep inside, when we work with and not against our bodies and bring them front and center into our relationship with the Lord, we are the better for it, and our lives take on a powerful, converging, catalyzing coherence that unifies our scattered, splintered self.
We can ask ourselves and our congregation: “When was the last time I expressed a truth that my mind was experiencing with my whole body—especially in my friendship with Jesus?”
Fr. Thomas Koller, OCD, is a Carmelite friar and priest of the Discalced Carmelite Province of California. He has a Licentiate degree in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and is a seminary formator and professor of Scripture at Mount Angel Seminary in Mt Angel, Oregon. Fr. Thomas has attended some courses at TOBI.