23 August 2019
Early in the morning, in the tiny harbour at Aghios Gheorgios on the coast of south-west Corfu, two fishermen are working in early sunshine that has already become sweltering.
The night’s work in the Ionian Sea is long over, their catch has been sold, but still the morning’s work is not over.
They have to dry, hang out, and then mend and fold their nets.
Without mending those yellow nets, there may be a smaller catch tonight. Without tending to their nets, small tears become bigger, frayed netting cracks and breaks, and eventually every fish becomes the one that got away, the one that was never caught.
Maintenance is an important part of the fisherman’s daily routine. Without maintaining the nets, there is no future.
The Gospel narratives tell how James and John among the disciples were called on the shore as they were mending their nets, attending to the small details of life, the small details of the working day see Matthew 4:21)(.
Tomorrow [24 August] is the feast of Saint Bartholomew, identified in tradition with Saint Nathaniel.
It is only later that these net menders and net maintainers– and after many stormy encounters with the wind, the waves and the living Lord – can sail out with confidence, in search of those big catches.
Too often I listen to theologians, particularly missiologists, theologians who specialise in the theology of mission, decry what they call the maintenance model of Church, where as priests we pay attention to the small details of parish life. They often dismiss this as ‘keeping the show on the road,’ and urge us to turn to a mission model of church.
But if we fail to keep the show on the road, there will be no show to invite anyone into. If we do not maintain the nets, some of the catch will slip through today, more tomorrow, and eventually there will be no point in trying to fish at all.
As I walked around the tiny harbour at Aghios Gheorgios in this former fishing village on the coast of south-west Corfu that has been transformed into a small coastal resort, the boats were bobbing up and down in the clear waters of the Ionian Sea, each brightly coloured in blue and white, and each with its own name in characteristic, stylised Greek letters.
The names are often captivating in harbours like this: a patron saint believed to have answered prayers … a lover whose name brings back romantic memories … the saint’s name of a mother or wife … or, perhaps, a reminder of another distant but safe harbour or haven.
Should I wonder whether such small boats have sailed so far, I am reminded that these Ionian islands provided Odysseus with his home in Ithaki and that his journey by sail and sea has inspired poets from Homer to Cavafy.
These names can display a pride and certainty rooted in Greek nationality, identity, culture and classical heritage.
One name that has caught my imagination in the small harbour in Aghios Georgios is a boat called Antigone.
Antigone is the name of a tragedy by the classical Greek playwright Sophocles, around the year 441 BC, the third of his three Theban plays, along with Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus.
Antigone, who gives her name to this play, is a stubborn and defiant heroine who becomes the embodiment of the ideal female character. As such, she contrasts with her beautiful but docile sister Ismene.
The play dramatises the dangers of allowing a ruler to attain absolute power, personified in Creon, the tyrant to whom few speak openly and who leaves few able to speak their true opinions. The people of Thebes know he is wrong, but they have no-one who risks telling him so or who is willing to engage in civil disobedience.
When Antigone is condemned to death, is it too late? Creon’s actions lead not just to the death of Antigone, but to the destruction of the city. Creon is unable to admit that he is mistaken. And so, Antigone hangs herself.
The play has influenced and been criticised by modern philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, in his essay The Ode on man in Sophocles’ Antigone.
Sophocles, in this play, is arguing that Athens needs to be saved from imminent destruction. He warns the people of Athens against arrogance which may lead to their destruction and downfall. Citizens cannot abdicate the responsibility of citizenship.
It is also a debate how to treat foreigners and citizens who are seen as identifying with the outsider and risk being outcasts themselves. Betraying the leader is now identified with betraying the state and betraying society.
There are laws higher than those of the state, we cannot be expected to obey the law above all else, and tyrants do not have the last word. The law is not absolute; nor can we allow rulers to be absolute either.
There seem to be lessons there for many political societies and leaders too. I wonder did the owner of one small boat know what a legacy one small name can carry?