Tossed by the Waves

Tossed by the Waves

Twelfth Sunday of the Year. Fr John O’Connor preaches on the calming of the storm.

When medieval artists and icon painters of the Eastern Christian tradition portrayed Jesus about to be baptised by John the Baptist, they often portrayed all sorts of strange and menacing sea creatures in the waters in which Jesus stood. This symbolised that, in accepting baptism, Jesus was acting in solidarity with the human condition, not least what threatens us.

The Jewish people of Jesus’s time would have understood the negative associations with water implied in these images. Apart from those who fished for their living, Jesus’s Jewish contemporaries were not seafarers, unlike their Phoenician neighbours. They had no great love for the sea. This is reflected in the Hebrew scriptures. In the Book of Jonah the sea is presented as violent, tossing a boat about as though it were a mere toy; and with the monster whale within the watery deep. The Red Sea consumed the Egyptians chasing after the Israelites in their exodus from slavery in Egypt. And God punished humanity by covering the earth with a great flood, leaving only Noah, his family, and the creatures in the ark.

Yet if the waters are presented as menacing, powerful, and destructive, they are also understood as being under the power of God. After all, the primeval waters mentioned in Genesis owe their existence to God. And, as Jonah’s fellow passengers discovered, just as God can unleash a great sea storm, so He can bring it to an end. Numerous Psalms speak of the same, for example:

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven (Ps 107:28-30)

All these different elements (and more) are to be found in this Sunday’s Gospel reading about Jesus calming the storm at the Sea of Galilee. Here too the waters are capable of unleashing ferocious destructive power. Indeed, the Sea of Galilee is notorious for its storms that can come with little warning.

Although Jesus had already performed many miracles and exorcisms, that Jesus was now showing control over the wind and sea – rebuking the wind and commanding the sea to be still, no less! – suggests something altogether greater about Jesus than being simply a holy man and wonder-worker like some of the prophets of the past. After all, it is God and God alone who controls the waters (and the wind). So the question of the disciples, ‘Who this this, that even wind and sea obey him?’ signals a dawning upon them of the extent of Jesus’s special nature, what the followers of Christ would come in time to recognise as his divinity.

Of course, present in this Gospel passage is not only the question of the recognition of who Jesus really is, but the question of faith, trusting in the Lord. It’s not simply because Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’ It is also because the image of a storm-tossed boat lends itself so easily as a symbol of the turbulence that can afflict any of us. It is at such difficult times when trust in God is especially important but can be most tested.

The Gospels do not deny that life can be very tough. Things might go well, but with little warning change like a sudden storm on the sea: a relationship that seemed robust breaks down, an unwelcome diagnosis arrives out of the blue, a job that seemed secure is lost, and so on. Life can impinge upon us so forcefully that even if we have great faith, we are nonetheless tossed about like a boat in a mighty storm.

Trusting in God is not a kind of existential anaesthetic. If the story of Jesus in the Gospels ended with the narrative of Jesus whose trust in the Father was so complete that he was able to asleep calmly on the storm-swept boat, then we might be tempted to think of trust in God solely in these terms. But the Gospels continue and they tell us of a saviour who wept, who sweated blood, and who died in agony. As the images of Jesus’s baptism remind us, he entered the waters of the human condition. He knew what is it to be rejected, hurt, and afraid.

All the same, today’s Gospel with Jesus asleep in the boat does tell us something important about what it is to have faith in the midst of great difficulties. That is, even though when we trust in God we can still feel greatly the pain and fear due to what life can throw at us; yet, even if sometimes falteringly, there can also be an awareness that in the midst of it all some part of us is like Jesus sleeping untroubled in the boat during the storm: an underlying consolation of knowing that despite everything we are ultimately in God’s hands.

Today’s Gospel reading, it seems to me, not only encourages us to trust in God, especially when life is hard. This is perhaps its most obvious message. But, seen in the context of the whole Gospel narrative, it also gives us an insight into the nature of what it is to have trust in God when suffering travails; and thus can help us to recognise the presence within us of faith in God even when such faith is small and flickering, and we feel tossed about, hurt, rejected, and afraid.

Readings: Job 38:1,8-11 | 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 | Mark 4:35-41

Image: Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Jan Brueghel (1596) (public domain)

Fr John O'Connor is Regent of Studies of the English Province and Regent of Blackfriars, Oxford.

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