A couple of weeks ago the play Fiddler on the Roof, the 1964 Broadway classic, came to the city where I live. The play, one of my all-time favorites, is the tale of Tevye the dairyman, his wife Golde, and his family’s struggles in a changing Russia. The three oldest of his five daughters are dealing with unusual marriages. He wrestles to recognize their feelings yet uphold revered Jewish traditions. The play is remembered for such heartwarming songs as “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”
As I reflected on the gospel for this Third Sunday of Easter, and the questioning of Peter at the seashore, one of the songs of Fiddler came to mind, the song “Do You Love Me?” Juxtaposing the two encounters brought me some deeper insights into my relationship with the Lord.
The song comes at a point in the play when Tevye gives permission to his daughter Hodel to be engaged. Hodel and her fiancé had pledged their love for one another. Perplexed by this idea of romantic love, Tevye goes home and asks Golde about their arranged marriage and their love for one another.
Tevye begins by asking Golde, “Do you love me?” She is utterly shocked by the question and says, “Do I what?” When he asks again, she dismisses it by telling him he must be upset, worn out, or maybe it’s indigestion. Tevye persists, “Do you love me?” Golde finds the talk ridiculous, “For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?”
Tevye explains that when they were married he did not know her, and his parents told him that with time they would eventually come to love one another. He just wanted to know after all this time, does she love him? Again she protests, “Tevye, I’m your wife! I’ve lived with you, fought you, starved with you, shared a bed with you for twenty-five years, if that’s not love, what is?” Tevye presses, “Then you love me?” Golde relents, “I suppose I do.” Tevye avows, “I love you too.” Together they conclude that while “it doesn’t change a thing, after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”
In essence, the song reveals that love is in the particulars, in fidelity, not in sentimentality, yet love does desire frequent affirmation of purpose and intensity.
Peter’s questioning by Jesus at the seashore in John 21:1-19 shows a similar dynamic. Peter and several of the disciples have gone back to their previous occupation of fishing, still uncertain of how the resurrection would affect their lives. In the huge catch of fish, they come to recognize the Risen Jesus, and at breakfast they receive a recommissioning from him in a Eucharistic setting.
Peter must still assess his relationship with Jesus in light of the resurrection. He had denied Jesus three times before the Passion, and now his love for Jesus and Jesus’ love for him needs affirmation if he is to move forward in forgiveness, intimacy, and mission. Like Golde in Fiddler, Peter is reluctant to affirm his love for Jesus, a love still so alive in his heart. In Peter’s case, to question that love opens up the wounds of failure, inconsistency, and betrayal. And yet question him Jesus does, taking a stance of vulnerability with Peter. All for good purpose. Jesus wants to unquestionably assure Peter of his continued love and forgiveness at this juncture of Peter’s life, and point him to the task at hand.
The questioning becomes a clear mandate: Peter is to love those entrusted to him with the same intensity as he loves Jesus himself. To follow Jesus means for Peter, and for all of us, to lay down our lives wholeheartedly for others, in concrete actions fueled by sustaining love. With Peter we say, “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you!”
Amid the countless ministry activities and prayer times of daily life, how do you encounter the Lord in the depth of love? How do you affirm your love for Christ each day and each season of life?
By Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB