12th Sunday – How (not) to pray in a storm

Rembrandt, Christ in the Storm

Job 38:1,8-11, Mark 4: 35-41

We have today one of the most climactic scenes of Mark’s gospel, Jesus calming the storm. Mark has clearly recorded an eye-witness account. He captures it with all the vivid detail of one who has gone through this awe-filled episode. What would it have been like to go through this event? It would be etched in your memory forever.

The Sea of Galilee is known by other names, such as the lake of Gennesaret and the sea of Tiberias. It is actually a large lake, about thirteen miles long and eight miles wide, 700 feet below sea level. It is bounded by mountains, the Golan heights on the East and Mount Arbel on the West. They form a natural funnel structure around it. When cold winds blew in from the mountains, they would drop quite quickly due to the difference in temperature with the warm air over the lake. Given their speed and difference in pressure, these winds create a vacuum, quickly giving rise to huge waves. A mid-sized ship (as these would have been) would be no more than a leaf blown in the wind, when tossed by these waves. There would nothing anyone could do. Judging by the terror of the disciples, this was one such storm. 

In such a situation, as you’re trying to do everything you know to save your life, the last thing you want to see is someone not contributing anything to your desperate efforts. In complete contrast to the disciples, Jesus is an image of serenity, happily asleep on the boat. He has been teaching throughout the day of the kingdom of God. From all appearances he had been sitting on this very boat as he taught the people. As the day is done, he is exhausted. He asks the disciples to go across to the other side, seemingly for some respite. But did Jesus know that there was going to be a storm? Maybe. And he still went across? In Mark’s gospel, the teachings of Jesus are always accompanied by a demonstration of the power of its proclamation. Jesus has explained the kingdom of God in parables. He has taught his own disciples what the parables mean. But that’s not enough. Knowing something is not the same as believing it. 

A lot of atheists tend to know more about the Catholic faith than the average mass going Catholic. The truths of the faith, though, for the atheist, is simply information. God is just an idea. As long as God and his goodness remain an idea, it cannot save anyone. And in a storm, you don’t need a good idea, you need a saviour. God’s goodness has to be experienced. It can never be simply an idea. His goodness is there in the simplest things of life which we always take for granted. But in a storm, we can’t miss it, because unless God shows up, nothing else can save us. Having taught them the secrets of the kingdom, Jesus was now going to give them an experience of the power of the king. He tells them to go to the other side and promptly goes off to sleep.

In a storm, in a crisis, the things we truly believe, what we fear, who we are, are all laid bare. It’s easy to be ‘nice’ when things go well, but a crisis will always reveal the state of our hearts – at least to us, if not to everyone else. And the disciples are completely out of control. They go and scream at Jesus. ‘Do you not care, we are perishing?’ This is not a question, or a request. It is an accusation. You don’t care. It is not like they believe he can calm the storm. In the Jewish sensibility, the sea was a (very real) image of the primeval chaos. This chaos can break into our lives at any time. No one had power over it except the Lord God. Only God could reign it in. Only God could rebuke the waters with a command, setting its boundaries as we heard in the first reading – 

Come thus far, I said, and no farther: 
here your proud waves shall break. (Job 38:11)

Jesus wakes up, doesn’t pause to address the disciples or their rudeness. Half-asleep, he rebukes the storm into silence and presumably, goes back to sleep. That’s authority. That’s the power of the kingdom which he has been teaching the whole day. Only then, does he turn to the disciples. ‘Why are you so terrified? How is it that you have no faith?’

If you go to an Ignatian guided retreat, very often, they will give you this verse to keep in your heart as you begin your retreat. It is a good one to keep in our hearts when we are in a crisis. What should the disciples have done? Is Jesus rebuking them for being afraid?  It is natural to feel fear, especially when you’re in a storm of this magnitude. A child will be able to go through any fearful situation, if she knows her father is with her. Even with her fears, she knows she is safe. Her father will take care of her. But put the same child alone, in a far-less dangerous situation, and she will fall apart. The disciples effectively accuse Jesus of letting them die and not caring. How many times have we said this ourselves? Isn’t this what we tell God, when we are faced with suffering, or as we see it around us – that he doesn’t care? The disciples shout at him as if he’s abandoned them. And that’s the point. Jesus was there with them. He might have been asleep but he was still watching over them. He who keeps Israel, never slumbers (Ps 121:4). He hadn’t left them alone. The disciples scream, like children who have been abandoned. But if we know we are not alone, our prayer, even in a crisis, will be very different – it will be one of faith. There is a theologian who remarked that the whole gospel can be summarised in one word – with. The gospel is just two things. We are in a mess. All of us. But God is in it with us. He is in the boat.

What is this boat?  It’s the Church. One of the oldest names for the Church is the barque of Peter. Here we can experience the power of the King. As long as we remain in this boat, we will be safe. It doesn’t mean we won’t go through storms (boats usually do); it doesn’t mean we won’t get wet and cold or we won’t be afraid. But it means through it all, God will be there with us. Maybe a storm has broken over your life at this time. Maybe you’re terrified, maybe you’re desperate. This word comes to you and me. Let it be on your heart and on your lips as you feel afraid. Why are you terrified? How is it that you don’t have faith? It will reveal the power of God to you, just as Jesus did to the disciples. He is there with you whatever you’re going through. With him, we will reach the shore.

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