The twenty-first chapter of John’s Gospel is a fascinating documentation of the historical birth of the new ethic. The particular story narrated there is the keystone of the Christian conception of man, of his morality, in his relationship with God, with life, and with the world.
The disciples were on their way back, at dawn, after a terrible night’s fishing on the lake, in which they had caught nothing. As they approach the shore, they see a figure on the beach preparing a fire. Later they would notice that there were some fish on the fire collected for them, for their early-morning hunger. All of a sudden, John says to Peter, “That’s the Lord!” They all open their eyes and Peter throws himself into the water, just as he is, and reaches the shore first. The others follow suit. They sit down in a circle in silence; no one speaks, because they all know it is the Lord. Sitting down to eat, they exchange a few words, but they are all fearful at the exceptional presence of Jesus, the Risen Jesus, who had already appeared to them at other times.
Simon, whose many errors had made him humbler than all the others, sat down, too, before the food prepared by the Master. He looks to see who is next to him and is terrified to see that it is Jesus himself. He turns his gaze away from Him and sits there all embarrassed. But Jesus speaks to him. Peter thinks in his heart, “My God, My God, what a dressing-down I deserve! Now he is going to ask me, “Why did you betray me?” The betrayal had been the last great error he had made, but, in spirt of his familiarity with the Master, his whole life had been a stormy one, because of his impetuous character, his instinctive stubbornness, his tendency to act on impulse. He now saw himself in the light of all his defects. That betrayal had made him more away of all his other errors, of the fact that he was worthless, weak, miserably weak. “Simon…”—who knows how he must have trembled as that word sounded in his ears and touched his heart?—”Simon…”—he he would have begun to turn his face towards Jesus—”Do you love me?” Who on earth would have expected that question? Who would have expected those words?
Peter was a forty- or fifty-year old man, with a wife and children, and yet he was such a child before the mystery of that companion he had met by chance! Imagine how he felt transfixed by that look that knew him through and through. “You will be called Kefas (cf. I, John: 42).” His tough character was described by that word “rock,” and the last thing he had in mind was to imagine what the mystery of God and the mystery of that Man—the Son of God—had to do with that rock, to that rock. From the first encounter, He filled his whole mind, his whole heart. With that presence in his heart, with the continuous memory of Him, he looked at his wife and children, his work-mates, friends and strangers, individuals and crowds, he thought, and fell asleep. That Man had become for him like an immense revelation, still to be clarified.
“Simon, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, I love you.” How could he say such a thing after all he had done? That yes was an affirmation acknowledging a supreme excellence, an undeniable excellence, a sympathy that overwhelmed all others. Everything remained inscribed in that look. Coherence or incoherence seemed to fall into second place behind the faithfulness that felt like flesh of his flesh, behind the form of life which that encounter had moulded.
In fact, no reproof came, only the echo of the same question: “Simon, do you love me?” Not uncertain, but fearful and trembling, he replied again, “Yes, I love You.” But the third time, the third time that Jesus threw the question at him he had to ask confirmation from Jesus himself: “Yes, Lord, You know I love You. All my human preference is for You, all the preference of my mind, all the preference of my heart; You are the extreme preference o life, the supreme excellence of things. I don’t know, I don’t know how, I don’t know how to say it and I don’t know how it can be but in spite of all I have done, in spite of all I can still do, I love You.”
This yes is the birth of morality, the first breath of morality in the dry desert of instinct and pure reaction. Morality sinks its roots into this Simon’s yes, and this yes can take root in man’s soil only thanks to a dominant Presence, understood, accepted, embraced, served with all the energy of your heart; only in this way can man become a child again. Without a Presence, there is no moral act, there is no morality.
But why is Simon’s yes to Jesus the birth of morality? Don’t the criteria of coherence and incoherence come first?
Peter had done just about all the wrong he could do, yet he lived a supreme sympathy for Christ. He understood that everything in him tended to Christ, that everything was gathered in those eyes, in that face, in that heart. His past sins could not amount to an objection, nor even the incoherence he could imagine for the future. Christ was the source, the place of his hope. Had someone objected to what he had done or what he might have done, Christ remained, through the gloom of those objections, the source of light for his hope. And he esteemed Him above everything else, from the first moment in which he had felt himself stared at by His eyes, looked on by Him.
This is why he loved Him.
“Yes, Lord, you know You are the object of my supreme sympathy, of my highest esteem.”
This is how morality is born. The expression is very generic: “Yes, I love You.” But it is as generic as it is generative of a new life to be lived.
“Whoever has this hope in him purifies himself as He is pure” (I John 3:3). Our hope is in Christ, in that Presence that, however distracted and forgetful we be, we can no longer (not completely anyway) remove from the earth of our heart because of the tradition through which He has reached us. It is in Him that I hope, before counting my errors and my virtues. Numbers have nothing to do with this. In the relationship with Him, numbers don’t count, the weight that is measured or measurable is irrelevant, and all the evil I can possibly do in the future has no relevance either. It cannot usurp the first place that this yes of Simon, repeated by me, has before the eyes of Christ. So a kind of flood comes from the depths of our heart, like a breath that rises from the breast and pervades the whole person, making it act, making it want to act more justly. The flower of the desire for justice, for true, genuine love, the desire to be capable of acting gratuitously, springs up from the depths of the heart. Just as our every move starts off not from an analysis of what the eyes see, but from an embrace of what the heart is waiting for, in the same way perfection is not the keeping of rules, but adhesion to a Presence.
Only the man who lives this hope in Christ lives the whole of his life in ascesis, in striving for good. And even when he is clearly contradictory, he desires the good. This always conquers, in the sense that it is the last word on himself, on his day, on what he does, on what he has done, on what he will do in the future. The man who lives this hope in Christ keeps on living in ascesis. Morality is a continual striving towards “perfection” that is born of an event that is a sign of a relationship with the divine, with the Mystery.
What is the true reason for the yes that Simon answers to Christ? Why does the yes said to Christ matter more than listing all your errors and the possible future errors that your weakness forebodes? Why is this yes more decisive and greater than all the moral responsibility expressed in its details, in concrete practice? The answer to this question reveals the ultimate essence of the One sent by the Father. Christ is the One “sent” by the Father; He is the One who reveals the Father to men and to the world. “This is true life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the one You have sent, Jesus Christ.” (John 17:3). The most important thing is that “they know You,” that they love You, because this You is the meaning of life.
“Yes, I love You,” Peter said. And the reason for this yes consisted in the fact that in those eyes that had set on him that first time, and had set on him so many other times during the following days and years, he had glimpsed who God was, who Yahweh was, the true Yahweh: mercy. God’s relationship with his creature is revealed in Jesus as love, and therefore as mercy. Mercy is the attitude of the Mystery towards any kind of weakness, error and forgetfulness on man’s part: in the fact of any crime that man commits, God loves him.
Simon felt this. This is where his “Yes, I love You” comes from.
The meaning of the world and of history is the mercy of Christ, Son of the Father, sent by the Father to die for us. In Milosz’s play Miguel Mañara, Miguel was going to the Abbot every day to weep over his past sins. One day the Abbot tells him, somewhat impatiently, “Stop weeping like a woman. All this never existed.” What does he mean by “never existed”? Miguel had murdered, raped, he had done all kinds of things… “All this never existed. Only He is.” He, Jesus, addresses us, becomes an “encounter” for us, asking us only one thing; not “What have you done?” but “Do you love me?”