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FEBRUARY 4, 2007: Fifth Sunday of the Year

Readings: 

Isaiah 6:2a, 3-8
I Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

One of the first things students of Scripture learn is the disturbing fact that biblical events are not always presented to us in the order in which they actually took place.

As we saw last week with Jeremiah, call narratives usually are the last part of a prophetic book to take form. Yet they're almost always placed at the beginning of the book.

Our sacred authors often rearrange historical or chronological order for us, their readers, to help us appreciate up front the meaning of events which the actual biblical participants wouldn't have understood until much later in their lives.

The vast majority of Scripture scholars agree, for instance, that the material contained in Matthew's annunciation to Joseph and Luke's annunciation to Mary wouldn't have been understood by either of the recipients in that precise way until much later in their relationship with Jesus or with one another - some of it until after their son rose from the dead!

So when Isaiah narrates his well-known temple call in today's first reading, he's most probably sharing with us his reflection on his many years of prophetic ministry, putting pieces together which originally didn't seem to fit together. Only toward the end of his ministry did he begin to understand the "otherness" and force of God's word in his life and his own unworthiness in proclaiming that word.

Something similar happens in today's gospel pericope. Just when did this miraculous catch of fish take place? Luke places it before Jesus' resurrection; John puts it after. Scholars believe both narratives basically describe the same event. If it took place, after, why does Luke locate it before, and vice versa? The answer lies in the greatest destroyer of chronology in the Christian Scriptures: Jesus' resurrection.

The primary basis for human chronology is birth and death. But something gets thrown out of chronological kilter if death leads to a new birth. This is precisely what happened in the lives of Jesus' followers. One he intersected their daily lives as the risen Jesus; they'd never again look at life and death in the same way. That's why Luke could take a post-resurrection event (and the call to ministry that's an essential part of it) and insert it into a pre-resurrection environment. On one level, it's the same thing Jeremiah and Isaiah did; but add resurrection to the mix, and it becomes even more understandable.

Having recently finished our Christmas celebrations, we might think that the first Christians evangelized others by initially telling them about the Bethlehem narratives. Paul informs us in today's I Corinthians passage that the opposite took place. "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins . . . that he was buried . . . that he was raised on the third day . . . ."

The first thing about Jesus that perspective converts were expected to believe was that he died and rose. Once someone said, "I believe in Jesus' death and resurrection," then he or she found out about his public ministry, and eventually the circumstances of his birth and infancy. His ministry and early life only made sense against the background of his dying and rising. Unless we're really determined to achieve life, why would we go through the death our faith demands of us?

With this "mixed-up" biblical chronology in mind, it might be good to reflect on the actual starting point of our own faith. Where we are in our beliefs now might be far removed from where we started. I presume everyone has a different faith chronology. Yet we might have to live a lot of years before we actually begin to appreciate and understand our personal chronology.