Sunday reflection: Matthew 14:22-33

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 14:22-33:

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost, ” they said, and they cried out in fear.

At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

As readers know, I spent a few days at a silent retreat last month, an annual event for me to recollect myself and commune with the Holy Spirit. It’s not easy putting the cares of the outside world out of one’s head to achieve that recollection, which I’ve described in earlier posts, but the addiction to noise is not the only distraction to be overcome at these retreats. The Jesuit retreat center is a lovely estate on a picturesque lake, a place of serenity and beauty that has its own pull on old habits. At each of the retreats I have attended, I have found myself looking through an amateur photographer’s eye at the natural beauty of the landscape, building a portfolio in my mind of the gorgeous grounds and shores along the edge of the estate. In fact, at some point I’ll probably ask the priests if I can return on one of their off days with my camera gear and create a book for others to enjoy, rather than spend my next retreat resisting the temptation to compose shots rather than compose myself.

Natural wonders remind us of the creative power of the Lord, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of worshiping nature in Creation as God Himself. There are parallels that make that trap even more attractive. Nature awes us in the original sense of the word with its massive and inexplicable power, as we see when earthquakes cause massive destruction, tornadoes appear out of nowhere to wipe out entire towns with little warning, or wildfires of any cause sweep across the landscape and lay waste to it. (I’ve lived almost all of my life in places where all three occur.) We have grown more in knowledge of nature and understand more about these events in an intellectual sense, but we tremble in fear when placed in immediate personal risk of any of them, or other massive natural forces. At other times, we see the beauty, diversity, and peace of nature, and can hardly resist the urge to draw parallels to God, or even believe that this is God.

But of course, nature is God’s creation, not the other way around. God created the universe and we live within it, but the the creation is not the Creator. This was the lesson taught to Elijah in our first reading from 1 Kings 19 today, the well-known passage that teaches how God truly speaks to us. Elijah went to the mountain as the Lord instructed to experience Him passing by, and Elijah felt the massive power of all the above natural forces. However, none of these was God:

A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD— but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire— but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

The prophecies of Elijah were well-known to all of Israel by the time of the episode recounted in today’s Gospel. The teachings were so well known, in fact, that both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself were thought by some to be Elijah returning to Israel to rescue them from bondage. Elijah appeared on Mount Tabor with Moses to speak with Jesus during the Transfiguration. The film The Nativity Story has a touching scene near the beginning of Mary and others teaching this very passage from 1 Kings 19 to a group of small children, which reflects the common understanding of Scriptures at that time that clearly instructed that nature served God and not the other way around — which the disciples would know better than most, through the healing miracles of Jesus.

And yet, because of its dramatic character, the disciples get very distracted by nature, to the point of losing trust in God. Jesus had just fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, another miracle that showed the transcendence of God over nature. They put to sea afterward, and got caught in a powerful storm — certainly good reason to worry, as a storm like that could swamp their boat or push them off course. They do not become terrified, though, until they see the supernatural — Jesus walking on the water, demonstrating His supremacy over nature. At first they do not believe that Jesus is not an apparition, and Peter asks to be given the same supremacy over nature in order to trust in what Jesus says.

What happens? Peter, buoyed by Jesus and his own faith, manages briefly to transcend nature himself. Even with Jesus’ example, though, Peter gets distracted by the power of nature and loses trust in God’s power. Peter immediately begins sinking — in other words, falls back into nature — but pleads with Jesus for salvation. Jesus then rebukes Peter for his lack of faith, but Peter didn’t stop believing that Jesus was there; he just lost trust in the power of God, which is the heart of faith itself.

We all live in the natural world, and it is not easy to maintain that trust, that faith, that God’s power transcends it. When illness and death strike our families and friends, especially in unexpected and tragic circumstances, we can be like Peter distracted by the winds on Galilee. When the consequences of our fallen human nature create tragedies and horrors, we look around and ask how it can possibly be within God’s will. We forget that these storms were created by us and not God, and that we must weather them and calm them to our best abilities while relying on God’s strength and providence to see us through to salvation.

Even apart from the bombast of physical and human nature, though, the passages today remind us of how we are to rely on God’s strength and commune with Him. At times during my retreat, I felt like the anti-Elijah when I focused on the dramatic expressions of nature around me. Had it been me on the mountain, I might have spent my time ooohhing and aaahhing over wind, the earthquakes, and the fire, and missed the “tiny whispering sound” that wanted to reach me and teach me about love and faith. I would have easily sunk like Peter in the fears and cares of the world, rather than remember the Lord who created it and me, and taken comfort and peace in Him instead.

We are to navigate this world and its dangers of nature, both physical and human, but with faith and trust in God and in our ultimate salvation from both. In the midst of the wind, the quakes, and the flames, just keep listening for the small voice within as you keep the Holy Spirit in your heart.

The front page picture is the view from the bow of a modern wooden tour boat on Galilee pointing toward the Mount of Beatitudes, from my own personal collection.

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