It happens, sometimes, that people feel hopeless when they are in a serious difficulty and are consequently gripped with fear – and especially when it seems that God is absent. This was the experience of the prophet Elijah when he was running away from the wicked Queen Jezebel, who wanted to kill him. It was also the experience of Jesus’ disciples, who faced great dangers on the lake in the middle of the night. The experience of Elijah in today’s first reading and that of the disciples in the Gospel both confirm to us that God is never absent or distant from our life situations, no matter how perilous and frightening they may be. He is close to us and is ever ready to intervene.
Elijah, hiding in a cave, was perhaps hoping that the Lord would intervene in some dramatic and powerful way to save him. Maybe the Lord will blow Jezebel away or destroy her with an earthquake. The prophet discovers, however, that the Lord is not in the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Rather he is present in “a tiny whispering sound.” If Elijah were not a good listener, or if he had clung too tightly to his expectations, he would have missed the presence of God altogether. As it is, he humbly presents himself before the Lord at the entrance of the cave.
In the Gospel, the disciples must also pass from the experience of God’s seeming absence to his presence – not in a gentle sound but in a storm. Even though Jesus seemed to distance himself from his disciples when he made them get into a boat and proceed across the turbulent lake, in fact he remained spiritually present with them, though unseen. His presence was more powerful because, as St. Matthew tells us: “he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.” The mountain represents the place of encounter with God. Christ at prayer on the mountain is in communion with his Father. He is in the divine sphere, in the “world” of God. This unseen presence of God is also part of what we ponder when we reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ Ascension. As the Son of God in perfect union with the Father, Jesus is even closer and more powerfully present with us than when he was visibly present on earth. In the case of the disciples, Jesus is not as far off as they think; in prayer, he is looking after them with loving concern.
This episode is also an instruction on the experience of the Church through the ages, which is traditionally symbolized by a boat battling heavy seas. It can sometime seem in our current moment in the history of the Church that the boat is drifting out of control, that huge waves are breaking over her from all sides, and there is danger of sinking. That impression is dispelled by the lesson of today’s Gospel: the Lord is always with us. As the Psalm proclaims: “Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him.”
The boat of our personal life may also be tossed about on the heavy seas of danger, loss, and grief. Our natural reaction may be to panic, but Christ who is in Heaven is with us, very closely watching us. Turbulent waters are no deterrent to him. He comes and walks on the very waves that are menacing the boat.
Jesus says to us in these moments: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid!” “It is I” (ego eimi in Greek) is the same expression that God used to reveal himself to Moses; it is the Divine Name. Christ’s saying, “It is I,” is his way of showing them that he is the God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush (cf. Ex 3:14). He is the God who revealed himself to Elijah. This is the same God who is so close to us now, Jesus Christ.
St. Paul had a profound experience of the presence of God. He understood that to be in union with him was more precious than anything else. He once wrote: “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil 3:8). To lose Christ would mean to lose everything. Knowing this, Paul was grieved – with “great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart” – over the state of his fellow Jews who were rejecting the Gospel.
Unlike the people of Israel who rejected Christ, we have accepted him and do have faith in him. But the faith we have in him can be tested, sometimes severely. “Even though enlightened by him in whom it believes, faith is often lived in darkness and can be put to the test. The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice, and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it” (CCC 164).
No matter how severe the challenges to faith may be sometimes, we should learn a great lesson from Peter in today’s Gospel. By Jesus’ divine power, Peter was able to walk on the water. But when he stopped focusing on Jesus, he began to sink. When he cried out – that is, when he prayed – “Lord, save me!”, Jesus immediately caught him, and then gently chided him: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” When we are afraid or feel weak, that is not the time to doubt but to believe and to cry out in prayer! In faith we turn to the Lord, confident that, though unseen now, he is present; he is in control; he has won victory for us through his saving Death and Resurrection. With the relieved Apostles in the boat, we offer homage to the Lord and joyfully proclaim: “Truly, you are the Son of God!”
What are my inner emotions when faced with fear? Where is my “mountain” that I climb to pray in communion with God? What are some things we may need to let go of in order to gain Christ and be found in him?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.