As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, "Peace to you." But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do questionings arise in your hearts?" See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (Luke 24:36–43)
This is the last fish Jesus saw before he ascended to heaven, and he ate it. I wonder how many fish he saw during his 33 years. A lot, for sure, but still there is some kind of definite number that we simply cannot know. What we do know, however, is that this was the last fish in that number, and it was broiled. Jesus eats a lot throughout Luke's Gospel, but this is the only time Luke tells us of him eating after the Resurrection. And this fish, which once swam around in a school and was caught and then broiled, was consumed by the glorified body of the Savior. No other fish in his school or in the all the seas of the world could claim that honor. Blessed are you among fish.
The focal point of this final appearance of Jesus to his disciples is not, of course, the fish but rather Jesus himself; or, to be more specific, his body. The disciples don't know what they are seeing. They think they are seeing a "spirit" and whatever that means, what we can be sure of is that the very last thing they were expecting to see was a human body. Jesus' work in the short, decisive span of these eight verses is to persuade them that the last thing they expect is precisely what they are encountering.
Truly, it is he, not a figment, not a reminder, not a liberated spirit, not a disincarnate presence, not what they might have accepted as possible even if unlikely. This is the same body with the same marks of the nails in those hands and feet. In and with this body, he can eat (whether or not he needs to). That broiled fish becomes part of that glorified body, even if we have no idea how a glorified digestive system might work.
Not by his words alone but indeed by his actions Jesus reveals that he does not seem to be alive, but is alive, and does not seem to have a body, but is bodily. What the disciples encounter at the end is the answer to the question of the whole Incarnation: what did the Word of God take on when the power of the Most High overshadowed Mary (Luke 1:35)? The soul only, perhaps? The respectable parts of being human? The appearance of flesh that could be thrown off when the job was done? No. None of this. Something much stranger: the whole man, who is the union of formed matter and divine breath (Gen 2:7). He does not give back the flesh that Mary gave him. He clings to it. In the Resurrection, he joins broiled fish to it. And he ascends with it. I wonder if the fish went up with him.
Against the heretics of his age, Saint Irenaeus of Lyon (d. 202) charged that, "vain indeed are those who allege the He appeared in mere seeming" (Against Heresies, V.I.2). For one reason or another, these heretics what to see the savior of their own imaginations. They can imagine a savior who appears human, who selects what they deem the respectable portion of the human person, who leaves behind all the stuff that is tied up with the death, decay, sluggishness, and ephemerality of created stuff. In other words, they can imagine a savior who does not really have a body, but only appears to have one, for a time. Irenaeus doesn't call them mistaken or incomplete or even wrong; he calls them "vain". They are willing to worship what they think possible, rather than the one who appears.
The one who appears eats fish. He eats fish for years from Nazareth to Calvary, and he eats fish after rising from the grave. He is bodily before and he is bodily after. He does not let go of what Mary gave him. Divine love is absolutely serious in the Incarnation: what is assumed is saved. And what the Word of God assumes is the "whole man", as Irenaeus says over and over again.
All that stuff that gets tangled up in the lives of others, which other people care for and injure, which other people love and spurn, which has a history and relations, which we call "the body" is part of the whole man that the Word assumes. It is a body that deals with the fish that is consumed, which--in some way that in the natural course of things few of us understand and in the supernatural course none of us understands--is integrated into that body.
What "appears" in the Risen Christ, as his glorified body, is the divine plan not to replace or reject the world, but to bring it with him into the fullness of life. Whoever shares in his body has life everlasting. For those disciples who had to be persuaded and all the ones who follow them and depend on their testimony, it is absolutely necessary to remember that singular fish. The fish that once swam like all the other fish has become a sign that the Word of God does not separate from the world and leave it behind, and neither must those who follow after him. We are vain if we presume to decide what can be assumed and saved, but we will be glorified if we allow ourselves to be pulled up with him who came down to us.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, give me the power to enter more deeply into the world and the lives of others.