“Depart from me Lord, I am a sinful man.” These words of St. Peter in today’s Gospel might seem like a strange response to a beautiful miracle. Christ helps Peter and his companions to catch a tremendous amount of fish, completing and exceeding the day’s work, and Peter responds with this plea for Christ to leave. More than a mere moral reflection, Peter’s request is apparently made out of fear in the presence of the powerful Jesus—Christ has to tell him “do not be afraid.” It might at first seem as though Peter’s words represent a desire for things to go back to being normal and comprehensible, but like in other places in the Gospels, where the miracles of Jesus cause the crowds to beg him to go away, this response of fear is in fact the beginning of a recognition the Christ is God.
We can see this when we consider our first reading along with the Gospel. Here, the prophet Isaiah, upon seeing the glory of God in a vision, cries out “woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips…yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” The people Israel believed throughout their history that if any human being saw God directly, they would die. We find this belief in practice throughout the Old Testament, with some Israelites even convinced that their death was guaranteed after seeing only an angel, a messenger of the God of Israel. Just as only that which was perfectly pure in a ritual sense could enter the Temple of the Lord without bringing down God’s wrath, so the people believed that anyone who had sinned could not enter into God’s presence without being obliterated by his holiness, as shadows are driven away by sunlight. Only the good angels, the ones who sing “holy, holy, holy” in heaven’s throne room, could withstand God’s full glory. Thus when Peter begs the Lord to depart from him, he is begging for his life, because he, a frail and imperfect human being, has recognized in Jesus the presence of the Almighty God, the Lord of Hosts.
Yet what happens, both to Isaiah and to Peter? They are not destroyed, but rather purified, then commissioned. Isaiah receives purification by means of a coal pressed to his lips, and so can take his place among the angels, attending to the Lord. Jesus tells Peter later in the Gospels: “you are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” Isaiah responds to God question “whom shall I send,” with the words “here I am, send me,” and so begins his prophetic mission. Peter hears Christ say “from now on, you will be catching men,” and later, “feed my sheep,” and “go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
But why is all of this important to us? The truth is that we ourselves go through the same process as Isaiah and Peter. We sing in the Mass the words of the angels, “holy, holy, holy,” for a good reason. We mystically represent the angels here at Mass because the Eucharist is the real presence of Christ, and during the Eucharistic prayer, we stand in the throne room of heaven. For this reason, the ancient Church used to require that all present during the liturgy of the Eucharist were Catholics in a state of grace. We still believe that we are permitted to come into God’s presence and receive him in Holy Communion because we have been cleansed, in this case through Baptism and confession. Like Isaiah and Peter, we stand before God and live, on account of his purifying mercy, and like them too, God sends us to bring his word and life to other souls throughout the world.