August 13th 2017. Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Don Fabio’s reflection follows the Gospel reading ...
The Gospel of the Lord: Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ
Kieran’s summary . . . This Sunday’s Gospel recounts the calming of the storm. Jesus wishes to go away by himself to pray, so he "makes” the disciples go across the lake by themselves. It is very significant that Jesus constrains the disciples in this way. They are experienced fishermen and would have been aware that the lake was prone to storms after the heat of the day. Often the Lord places us in situations that we would prefer not to be in. St Francis of Assisi abhorred leprosy, but the Lord in his providence placed Francis in the midst of lepers and Francis was transformed as a result. Similarly with each one of us. The Lord places us in situations we do not desire. As a result we call upon his name and we are able to do extraordinary things. When Peter sees Jesus walking upon the water, he tries to walk on the water too. Jesus has no problem with this. He wants us to do extraordinary things, to live the life of children of God. Peter is able to walk on the water for as long as he keeps his gaze fixed on Jesus, but when he looks to the storm he begins to sink. We are stronger than the adversities of life only for so long as we look to Jesus in faith. While we do this, the Lord can accomplish great things in us.
Elijah encounters God in an unexpected way and becomes an unstoppable man of God to the end.
The first reading recounts a fundamental experience in the life of the prophet Elijah. It is a time of grave crisis in the faith of Israel. During his struggles, Elijah is involved in an epic confrontation with the prophets of the Canaanite gods. He flees, but the Lord takes him to himself in the passage that we read on Sunday. Elijah is taking refuge in a cave of Mount Horeb. Recall that this same prophet would appear with Moses when Jesus climbed the mountain at the Transfiguration. Moses represents the Law whilst Elijah represents the prophets. In the account that appears in the first reading, Elijah has an experience of the Lord and recognizes him. As a result of this experience, the prophet is completely transformed and becomes an unstoppable man of God until the end.
Sometimes the Lord asks us to do what is difficult, to “go to the other side” even though we do not want to go
In the passage from Matthew proclaimed this Sunday, we hear of an experience that is fundamental and essential to the Christian life. The parallels with the first reading are clear. Just as Elijah had a real encounter with God, so the disciples in the Gospel have an experience that leads them to recognize that Jesus is the Son of God. There is an interesting phrase in the Gospel one could easily pass over: “After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat”. The word “made” seems to indicate an aggressive attitude on the part of Jesus. In fact, the term used by Matthew in the Greek version of the Gospel found in the Septuagint (which we consider to be divinely inspired) is used elsewhere on occasions when people are being forced to do something. Why is this term used? One third of the disciples were originally fishermen and they were being asked to go to the other side of the sea, a command that would not have been easy for them to accept. The notion of crossing to the other side is particularly significant insofar as it recalls the Exodus and the sea that kills the enemy and saves the chosen people. This event, in fact, is at the centre of the Hebrew liturgy and a fundamental event in their history. The disciples in the Gospel, experienced fisherman as they are, are being asked to cross a sea with very particular characteristics at evening time. The sea of Tiberius has certain currents that give rise to storms in the late afternoon and evening. So the disciples are being given a task that is doubly challenging. Firstly, crossing to the other side is an action that has Paschal overtones, and they are being asked to do it without Jesus! Secondly they are being asked to do something that they know is ill-advised.
To dissolve the knots in our hearts, the Lord impels us to be where we would prefer not to be
In the end they go only because they are constrained to do so by Jesus, not because they want to. How often this happens to us in life! The Lord often wishes to give us no option but to do things that we would prefer to escape from. In the Book of Job we find the curious phrase, “That which I fear is happening to me”. Sometimes, to dissolve the knots in our hearts, the Lord must permit this to happen. He conspires to place us at the centre of things that we would prefer to flee from. Our lives are conditioned by our desire for personal wellbeing, by the tendency to flee from what is unpleasant. The case of St Francis of Assisi is emblematic in this respect. He had a horror of leprosy. As he says in his testament, it was a bitter thing for him even to see a leper, but the Lord in his providence brought him in the midst of lepers. This experience of being in a situation that he abhorred led to a complete transformation in Francis. The knots within him were dissolved and his tastes, preferences and priorities were all changed.
When we are in a situation that we abhor, that we cannot control, then we turn to the Lord and he replies, “Courage! It is I!”
The disciples must be brought to an awareness of their own limitations, and this happens through the storm and the reawakening of the fisherman’s fear of the ungovernable sea. They find themselves far out from shore with the wind against them. How often we find the wind against us in the Christian life! At the very moment when it seems that they cannot go on, they see Jesus walking upon the sea. The Lord had gone away by himself to pray, to be with the Father. Jesus is the new man who unites the divine and human natures. Thus he can walk above the storm, above what is difficult and absurd. Curiously the disciples cry out, “It is a ghost!” Christianity is often reduced to a spectre, to an abstraction, to something immaterial, to a beautiful utopia that has nothing to do with real things. But Jesus is no ghost and he says, “Courage! It is I!” This is the word we hear in the midst of the storm that assails us and that dissipates our fears.
For as long as we look to Jesus, we are stronger than any storm, but if we look fearfully at the storm then we find ourselves along and it will overcome us.
Peter asks Jesus to command him to come and walk on the water too. Jesus complies. Does this surprise us? It is for this that the Lord Jesus has come among us: to give us his life, to permit us to share in the things that he does, to make us children of God. Why is Peter unable to walk for long on the water? If we are to do the things of God, then we do them not from our own abilities or talents. Our human nature has no power over the void, over the things that threaten us. When Peter looks to Jesus then he is stronger than the storm, but as soon as he starts to focus on the storm then he must rely on his own capacities, and these are insufficient. We do not possess in our make-up the capacity to defeat our enemies. It is only in our relationship with God, by fixing our gaze intently on him in faith, that we have the solutions to the enigmas of our lives. This Sunday we discover that we can walk upon the water, that we can do extraordinary things, not because we are capable, but because God is capable of doings these things in us. In all things let us look to the Lord, in all things let us walk towards him, and then we will find that we will fly through all adversities, over all the crossings of the sea.