James Tissot (c 1888), Brooklyn Museum
The stimulus for the Reflection came from a recent item in the online The Jesuit Post, "7 Things to Brighten Your Day".The Jesuit Post is a blog I tend to read daily. The referred to post was one on April 30, 2020 by Brendan Gottschall, SJ. During the confinement and worries of the pandemic, he finds a few things that have given him joy.
The Easter stories and those of Jesus after his resurrection such as his appearance to Mary Magdalene, appearing to the disciples in hiding, on the road to Emmaus, inviting Thomas to inspect his wounds are familiar to many. There is one piece of his first appearance to the disciples that I've read many times, but never thought much about it. It's a part of the story in Luke 24:36-43. I'll include that, from the NIV, in full, with emphasis on the part I'd never given serious thought to. The disciples were in hiding when mysteriously Jesus appears:
"... Jesus himself stood among them and said them, 'Peace be with you.' They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, 'Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.' When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, 'Do you have anything here to eat?' They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence."
What better way for Jesus to show the disciples that their resurrected Lord was not simply a spirit: sit down and eat with them. Over their many months traveling around had they sat and ate together, perhaps sometimes at table, I'd guess often outdoors around the campfire, and of course the Passover meal before instituting what we call communion.
The Gospel of John relates another story of Jesus after his resurrection eating and enjoying a meal. (Fish, again!) This is the meal depicted in the painting above. The story, in John 21:1-4, is most likely familiar. At a loss of what to do after Jesus' death and resurrection, the disciples decide to do something familiar: they go fishing. They are not very successful. In the morning, a stranger on the shore, who turns out to be Jesus, tells them, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." Possibly realizing they have nothing to lose, they cast on the right side. Now, there are so many fish they can't haul them all into the boat. They quickly realize, at least Peter does, that the stranger is Jesus.
They go ashore to Jesus and he has a fire of coals going with fish on it — and bread alongside. Jesus tells them to get some of the fish they'd just caught, then makes what I think is a beautiful statement: "Come and have breakfast!" How neat! Through the gospels, we get the picture that Jesus likes to eat, enjoys a good meal. (Remember Jesus' comment contrasting himself to John the Baptist: "The Son of Man came eating and drinking ...." (Mt. 11:19; Luke 7:34) And now as the resurrected Jesus, he continues to enjoy meals.
The writer in the mentioned The Jesuit Post blog makes this comment about the earlier passage when Jesus asks the disciples whether they have anything to eat: "This passage gives me great joy because it means that the resurrected body is still capable of enjoying food!" As a person who enjoys food, I immediately identified with the writer's joy. I believe in the resurrection. From scripture I get a picture that we'll have some type of recognizable body. It doesn't take too much of a leap to think that maybe enjoying great food — heavenly food! — will be part of a resurrected life for eternity.
While I can't say like some might that I look forward to heaven — at least not the dying (and possible suffering) part. Not in the way I might look forward to my August vacation to Pittsburgh watching the Pirates. (Ugh; probably impossible this year.) My faith does however give me the hope that death is not the end, that there is the eternity of heaven. And I trust with all my being that this eternal heaven will be good, most likely beyond any imagination. Jesus, from John 14:1-4: "... if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?"
I mesh together this hope of a more-than-can-be-imagined heaven, with the resurrected-Jesus-eating stories, and my own love of eating good food: And I have a wonderful image (albeit seen through a glass dimly) of heaven. I once had a glimpse of what that might be like:
The summer of 2010, Rose and I visited my niece and her husband in Hattiesburg, Mississippi where she was working on a doctorate (in nutrition; maybe food runs in the family). My goal for the trip — in addition to visiting with Diana and Boler, of course — was to enjoy as much blackened fish as humanly possible.
The blackened-fish dream began at 30th Street Station even before boarding the The Crescent, with a blackened catfish sandwich. Then there was blackened redfish in Mobile, not sure the type of blackened fish at Jimmy Buffets's Margaritaville in New Orleans, and at least two or three in Hattiesburg. Oh, yes; one evening, a friend of Diana and Boler came over to do his specialty: Deep-fried breaded catfish. I spent much of the time when I wasn't eating, lying on the sofa reading a book Diana had of the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr. My foretaste of heaven!
I'm sure no one knows what heaven will really be like — and those preachers who do should be regarded with suspicion. But many, probably most of us speculate. Some imagine streets paved with gold. Others see themselves in an eternal choir singing hymns of praise to God; probably others with guitars and praise songs. Maybe sitting at the feet of God who is finally telling us what earthly life was really all about. (I won't describe some of the more erotic pictures I've heard from friends over the years.) Of course these visions as well as mine, and probably yours, are simply speculation, enjoyable speculation.
While thinking about this Reflection, especially Jesus eating and my blackened fish realized dream, I wondered what do each of us have in this earthly life that we'd like it if it continued, in some, maybe even better, form in heaven. What might be a few pieces of our earthly life that we dream might be a part of the heavenly experience?
For some there may be the dream of a reuniting with family, with a left-too-soon spouse. Perhaps getting a chance to talk and reminese with a favorite high school coach. Or maybe heavenly mountains to climb, river rapids to navigate. In my 10/4/16 Reflection about the death of a friend Ted Hill, I imagined in heaven, God welcoming Ted, with a handshake and a glass of cabernet sauvignon, saying, "A glass of my finest, Ted. ... Later I'll show you a favorite trout stream."
During this pandemic time of stay-at-home and social distancing, I'm sure all of us have many things and experiences we miss. Perhaps thinking about those gives us insight into what in this busy life is really important to us; what is it that's real and makes life worth living?
These days without places to go and not many things to do give many of us opportunity for thought, meditation, and introspection. I hope maybe some things in this Reflection might spur deeper thoughts on these topics — or spur other thoughts.
I'm sure the eternal heaven will be much more — and much more wonderful — than I can imagine. But, with my limited imagination, I'll know it will be special if when I get there I see God holding out a big cast iron frying pan toward me, a hot fire in the background, with a smile and says: "Keith, redfish or catfish?" ... Wonder if I'd be overstepping to answer, "Both!"