In the gospel we find the disciples in a small, frail, boat, struggling with a heavy sea and a strong headwind. The Sea of Galilee is surrounded by hills and strong winds can come down the valleys and stir up the sea. In all sorts of ways, we can all find ourselves struggling with a heavy sea and a strong headwind.
We sense our frailty and vulnerability; the odds against us seem stronger than our resources. In today’s second reading, Paul seems to be speaking out of that kind of overwhelming situation. He says, ‘my sorrow is so great, my mental anguish is endless’.
What was threatening to engulf him was the realization that his own Jewish people, in whom he took such pride, were rejecting Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. He felt helpless before their refusal to believe and he almost sank under the weight of it all. Those we love and cherish don’t always take a path we believe would be life-giving for them. Our sense of helplessness before such a situation can cause us great anguish and sorrow. It can threaten to drag us down.
As the disciples in today’s gospel reading struggled with the elements, they may have wondered, ‘Where is Jesus?’ He was the one who had made them get into the boat and sail across the sea to the other shore. The answer to their question was ‘Jesus was praying’.
Having sent his disciples across the sea in a boat, he went up into the hills to pray. He was alone in prayer, and, yet, his prayer did not remove him from his disciples. While praying, he became aware of their struggle in their small boat with the great sea, and he came to them in their struggle. In our own struggles with what life can throw up, we can find ourselves asking, ‘Where is the Lord?’ At such times the Lord is never far from us. In his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of Jesus as one ‘who is at the right hand of God interceding for us’.
It is reassuring to think that the Lord is always praying for us. He is prayerfully present to us in our struggles, as he was prayerfully present to the disciples as their boat was tossed about. When the disciples first had a sense of the Lord’s physical presence to them in the storm, they thought he was a ghost, and they were terrified. Yet, there is nothing ghostly about the Lord’s presence to us. It is not the kind of presence that generates fear.
His presence to us at those moments when we sense our frailty is always a supportive, loving presence, and, as Saint John says in one of his letters, ‘perfect love casts out fear’. Even after we have become aware of the Lord’s presence, we can still feel ourselves sinking. Like Peter in the gospel reading, having called out to the Lord, we begin to lose sight of him again and we sense that we are going under. At such times, all we can do is to pray the prayer of Peter, ‘Lord! Save me!’.
We have all prayed a version of that prayer. It is a prayer out of the depths. One of the psalms in the Old Testament begins, ‘Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice!’ The gospel reading suggests that this is a prayer the Lord will always answer. As he did for Peter, the Lord will put out his hand and hold us.
A question that today’s gospel reading prompts us to ask is, ‘What keeps me afloat when life is a struggle?’ We could answer that question in different ways – our family, good friends. As people of faith, we would add, ‘knowing that the Lord walks with us on the stormy waters, which he alone can calm’. The Lord comes to us in the noisy, tumultuous, storm, but today’s first reading suggests that he also comes to us in the calm, in what the reading calls, ‘the sound of a gentle breeze’.
The Lord whispers to us in silence. If we can learn to hear him whispering in the silence, we will become more attuned to his powerful voice in the storm. Amen
Fr. John Peter