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.”
No one doubts that 2020 has become our annus horribilis, probably the most catastrophic single year in the lifetimes of most people around the world. A plague, an economic crash, deepening conflicts leading back into a cold war — we haven’t seen anything like it. And it’s only August!
We pray for calmer seas ahead, but we don’t see any break in the storms that batter us. That leads those of faith to wonder whether 2020 is a fluke, or whether it’s a chastisement. Is God behind the plague and the other crises, punishing us for our wayward ways? Thankfully, today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings give us clarity on how the Lord works, and how we are to respond.
First, we hear the story of the prophet Elijah at Horeb, one of the most revealing of all the prophecies in the Old Testament. The Lord commands Elijah to “stand on the mountain,” as He will pass by. The Lord wants Elijah to experience a true theophany, but it is not what Elijah expects:
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 Lord was not in the wind, the earth, or the fire. Instead, God spoke to Elijah in a small voice, deep within the prophet’s heart. The Lord created the wind, the earth, and the fire, but it does not contain Him. God manifests Himself in our hearts, where He writes His laws, and speaks to the prophets in a meek manner.
Consider today’s Gospel in this light. The disciples are being tossed by the sea and a storm, with the wind against them. How does Christ manifest Himself? He walks on the water, unperturbed by the wind and the sea. It does not contain Jesus, nor does it bother Him. It is of no concern to Jesus in this instance, and He tells the disciples it should be of no concern to them either. “Take courage,” He says, “it is I; do not be afraid.”
This is one of two times Jesus tries to teach the disciples to take no concern in the natural storms that erupt around them. In another Gospel reading (Matthew 8 and Luke 8), Jesus sleeps on a boat in Galilee while a storm suddenly comes up, frightening the disciples. “Master, master,” they plead, “we’re going to drown!” Jesus wakes up and calms the storms, and then asks, “Where is your faith?”
In both cases, Jesus calms the storms, but also challenges the disciples over their apparent loss of courage and/or faith in the face of those storms. In neither case are these punishments for wrongdoing; storms and heavy seas are part of the life of fishermen in Galilee. The Gospel doesn’t tell us that storms won’t arise, especially storms of our own making, thanks to our fallen natures and sinfulness. Rather, the Gospels promise salvation where it matters — in the eternal life, through forgiveness of those sins in Christ’s salvation.
So how are we to respond to these storms? My friends Jake and Lucas at Relevant Radio discussed this Gospel reading with me on the air this week, and they pointed out an overlooked aspect of Peter’s response. He loses faith and gets rebuked for it, but at least he got out of the boat. Peter stepped into the headwinds, having enough faith to come to Jesus in the storm. His faith wasn’t perfect, to be sure, but Jesus rescued him anyway. None of the other disciples attempted to walk to Jesus at all.
This brings us back to Elijah. The Lord calls him to the top of the mountain, where strong winds, fire, and an earthquake erupt all around him. Does Elijah go back inside, hiding, and assume that the natural events happening around him are a judgment or a punishment? He does not; instead, he stands firm and waits for the Lord to speak to him. Only when Elijah hears the still, small voice does he go to the cave entrance.
This is how we are called to deal with the headwinds of life — by stepping into them. Every single apostle of Christ did this, and all but one got martyred for it; John ended up exiled instead, a milder form of martyrdom. The path of the Lord is filled with headwinds and earthquakes, but then again so is life in this world anyway. We accomplish nothing by hiding in the boat, or worse yet just assume they are a judgment and let it paralyze us.
For those who follow Christ, we must take courage in Jesus and trust Him to be with us at all times. That doesn’t mean we won’t sink in the water, but it does mean that in the end it is of no importance. Only by stepping into the headwinds and the waves can we accomplish Christ’s mission. We have to get out of the boat in order to serve Him, however imperfectly we do so.
The front-page image is “Christ with St. Peter and the Disciples on the Sea of Galilee” by Lucas Gassel, mid-16th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“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.