In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples have gotten into a boat with Jesus to go across the Sea of Galilee, and Mark says that “a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But [Jesus] was in the stern, asleep on the cushion” (Mrk. 4.37). The anxious disciples, fearing for their lives, wake Jesus up, and yell at him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). And Jesus awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And Jesus rebukes the disciples for their fear and their lack of faith. And the disciples are awestruck.
The disciples are afraid because of their own helplessness in the face of the power of their natural circumstances. But precisely in virtue of their helplessness, they are led to an encounter with the depths of God’s power and wisdom. They discover that Jesus has power over the physical creation, that he can command the wind and the sea, and they obey his voice. In the circumstances of our lives, the Lord is always inviting us to step out into the darkness, and to discover that he is Lord of the darkness as well.
As with the Gospel as a whole, this passage is rich with meaning. First of all, we learn something here about the identity of Jesus – about who Jesus is. Mark invites us to meditate on Jesus’ identity, with the question with which this episode concludes: “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” (4.41). Indeed: who then is this? An echo of the question Jesus asks the disciples at Cesarea Philipi: “Who do you say that I am?”
The Gospels, and particularly the Gospel of Mark, leave us to ask and answer these kinds of questions for ourselves. We, like the first disciples, are invited to deduce something about the identity of Jesus from the facts with which we are presented. Here is one with authority over the elements of creation, over the natural world. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The prologue of John’s Gospel, which we read at the end of every mass, draws the inference for us: An encounter with Jesus is an encounter with the one who “was in the beginning with God; all things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” He has power over creation because he is the Creator; the Wisdom of God who spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. It was Jesus who laid the foundations of the earth, and stretched the line upon it, who sunk its bases, and set its cornerstone. It was Jesus who shut in the sea with doors and prescribed bounds for it and said ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed.’ Jesus is he by whom and through whom all things were made, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.
The disciples in the boat are filled with awe because they are confronted by the great mystery of who- Jesus-is – his identity has been disclosed to them in measure, and they are amazed. The implication is that they have come face to face with the creator of the heavens and the earth. But there is more to be said. We learn from this story not only that Jesus has power and authority over the creation, but that he exercises that power and authority for our good, because he loves us. On this score, we can learn something about our own spiritual lives. The Church is often described figuratively as a ship, and some of the early fathers saw in the image of the stern of the boat, where Jesus was asleep, a figure of the beginning of the spiritual life, that is, our state of being immature in the faith. St. Bede points to the spirituality of those who have just received the sacraments of initiation – like Baptism or Confirmation – when we first begin to grow in the faith and first encounter challenges, when we – as new disciples of Jesus – are first buffeted by wind and waves and are filled with fear. When we are first confronted by the reality that belonging to the Lord does not mean that your life will be any easier.
This experience – the “wind and the waves” of our lives – could be anything. It could be bereavement, or illness, or financial trouble, or alienation from someone we love; anything and everything that shakes our peace. It is at times like this when we are apt to find Jesus as it were asleep. That is, we are apt to conclude that he has “gone to sleep on us,” that he has stopped paying attention, and ceased to exert any influence in our lives and over our circumstances. “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”
This experience happens almost universally in the lives of people who have begun to live spiritually. And it poses a danger. The danger is not that we will be overcome by the wind and the waves – the fact is that even the “sleeping Jesus” is sovereign and provident. The danger is that we will abandon ship altogether, that we will come to the erroneous conclusion that the power of Christ was a fantasy all along. Most people who succumb to this danger abandon the communion of the Church and look for meaning and fulfillment elsewhere. But there is another, related danger: that we conclude that while Christ and his power may be real, yet he is a distant God who is unconcerned with me and with the turbulence in my life. These people may continue in the communion of the Church, they may keep “showing up”, but they stop growing spiritually. And if nothing changes, they may wither and die on the vine.
But the truth is that there are no accidents in the spiritual life. When the Lord seems to withdraw, when he seems to be “asleep on the job,” this too – even this – is for our benefit, for the sake of our salvation. The Lord desires for us to return to the ardor of our first love, and to seek him with a determination born of that love. One of Jesus’ most fundamental desires is that we should desire him.
But what do you do in the times of darkness and difficulty, with which life in this world is full? When life is like that, usually the last thing we want to hear from someone is a platitudinous “God loves you.” When life becomes hard, go spiritually to the place of the Lord’s own experience of turbulence and desolation, where Jesus himself began to feel as though he might be overwhelmed by the wind and the waves: go, in spirit, to the cross. Seek Jesus there, because THERE is the reality of God’s love for us, in the very moment of what seemed to all the world like the final triumph of darkness and death, in the blood, and the thirst, and the suffocation, and in the Lord’s own cry of forsakenness, and finally in the sleep of his death. Seek him there, as the disciples sought him in the stern of the boat, and in that place offer him your fear. But be patient and persistent. Jesus said, “knock and it will be opened to you.” He did not say it would be opened immediately, but that it would be opened. And in that place of seeking, knocking, and asking, LISTEN for the voice of him who shut in the sea with doors; listen for him to speak to the chaos in your heart – for him to say “Peace; be still.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.