Small Boats

Small Boats

Nineteenth Sunday of the Year. fr David shows how the humanity of Jesus Christ communicates the gentle presence of God in the midst of violence.

Imagine that you are out at sea and a storm is blowing in, would you rather be on a large cargo ship or a small yacht? In contrast, picture yourself navigating through a series of obstacles. Which would you now prefer? It is the very stability of the cargo ship which makes it safer in a storm, but this stability makes it less easy to manoeuvre. With the yacht we have the opposite. Its manoeuvrability makes it less stable.

We can apply this lesson to the world of nature. Those natural forms which are most stable are also the least adaptable, whereas the most adaptable natural forms are the most unstable. Here, to give an example we can contrast cockroaches with cats. The earlier ancestors of the cockroach arose around 300-350 million years ago, and it is likely that the decedents of modern cockroaches will be around for hundreds of millions of years. The earlier ancestors of cats are thought to have arisen 8-10 million years ago, and although all cat lovers would like to think of cats as existing for ever, it is unlikely they will outlive cockroaches. And yet cats can adapt to their environment to a much higher degree than cockroaches. We have never domesticated cockroaches, and that is not due to the lack of a ‘cute’ factor, but because cockroach behaviour cannot adapt in ways which make them suitable companions for human beings.

So where do we, human beings, stand in nature? We are the most adaptable of all animals, but this means that we are also the most unstable. Even our physical form is unstable in comparison with most over animals (the human back is not a robust mechanism). Yet it is not primarily our physical nature which is most unstable within us. In western nations we live in a period of history which has brought unprecedented stability in relation to our physical needs (which is not to say we should take this for granted). I do not believe, however, that the majority of people living in western societies feel secure. There are very real physical threats, but in comparison with those faced by our predecessors these are relatively small. So why do we not feel safe?

This Sunday’s first reading narrates the story of how Elijah encounters the Lord on mount Horeb. We are told that there was a mighty wind, but the Lord was not in the wind, followed by an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Nor was the Lord in the fire which followed the earthquake, but in the sound of a gentle breeze Elijah hears the presence of God. The mighty wind, earthquake and fire could all be seen as images of the human person; nature at its least stable, with the greatest potential for destruction. The adaptability of human beings carries with it the potential for terrible destruction. When we listen for the voice of God the greatest danger is that we listen to our own voice. Elijah avoids this temptation and remains hidden in the cave. It is in the quiet of the gentle breeze that Elijah hears the word of God, the creative word, and by listening to this creative word Elijah is able to use his potential not for destruction, but for building up God’s people.

This throws light on the story of Jesus walking across the lake in the midst of a storm to the disciples. Here again the storm can be seen as an image of human nature: terrible and destructive. When Christ reaches the boat He proclaims to the disciples, ‘It is I’. This proclamation is to be understood as a divine claim, and is linked with similar proclamations in the Gospel of Matthew in which Christ reveals that He is the presence of God. At the same time Jesus Christ is fully human, and in His person shows us how to live in perfect union with God. Just as Elijah found the voice of the Lord in the gentle breeze, so Jesus Christ, continually listening to the Father’s voice, is the gentle presence of God in the midst of human violence.

Peter walks out on the water towards Jesus, but he is overcome in fear by the violence of the storm. This is often how we find ourselves. In the face of the destructive voices which dominate our world we can feel helpless, unable to resist the terrible destructive power of the violent. Yet Jesus Christ reaches out to hold us as we sink beneath the waves. Raising us up to be with Him, so that our voices can be used to build His Kingdom. From our little faith, small boats on a great and violent sea, He can make us great.

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9,11-13 Romans 9:1-5 Matthew 14:22-33

fr. David Goodill OP is Provincial Bursar of the English Dominicans, and teaches moral theology at Blackfriars, Oxford.