Twelfth Sunday, Year B

 The passage we read today from the Book of Job evokes in a few words, but in a striking way, the sovereign mastery that God exercises over the elements, and particularly over the sea, which appears to be the most difficult to control.

Often God manifests himself to frightened human beings from the midst of a storm. By raising his voice in the din of unleashed waves, he shows that he dominates them, that he remains alive standing when nothing resists the flooding of the waters that submerge and engulf everything, whose violence is so extraordinary that nothing or no-one can tame it except God, who fearlessly speaks over the destructive roar.

Nothing so struck ancient peoples’ imagination as the sea, immense without known limits, on which one ventured only in case of absolute necessity, for crossings as short as possible, and in the favourable season only, because its sudden fury turned any voyage into an uncertain undertaking. To top it all, there were stories of sea monsters that certain persons swore to have encountered. As a consequence, the sea was regarded as the abode of the most redoubtable forces of evil, manifesting themselves by capricious and tumultuous waves in order to harm humans who dared to violate their domain. Such terror on the ancients’ part is no laughing matter, for today the sea remains most impressive and is one of the natural forces that continues to inspire new and dreadful mythologies. It is not always considered—far from it—the ‘quiet roof where doves saunter.’

Many times, particularly in the Psalms, the bible says and shows that God rules the sea and all the forces that break loose in the oceans: wind, rain, thunder, lightning, and darkness that, especially during the tempest, heightens a sailor’s fears. This mastery allows God to submit the great waters to his own plans: He started and ended the Flood; he parted the waters of the Red Sea so that the people could cross it dry-shod, ordering the waters to come back together to prevent the Egyptians from following the people of Israel to the opposite shore; he saved Jonah from the turbulent waters by sending a huge fish to take him back to land. Without losing its frightening character, the sea is a docile instrument in God’s hands, not because he subdued it one day after a battle, but because he created it.

Now today, in our Gospel from Mark, we find Jesus in a boat with his disciples, about to exercise his divine power over the sea. If we read this episode rapidly, we learn the Lord’s calming of the storm at sea is a miracle that shows his extraordinary power: he has dominion over even the unleashed forces of nature. But a more attentive reading reveals that this miracle has a much wider meaning. To detect it, we must take into account the way in which Mark structures his narrative and inserts into it many details and numerous biblical allusions. We are speaking of the sea, this frightful force of nature that only God can master because he created it and fixed impassable limits regarding it; its unfathomable depths evoke the abyss where infernal powers reside. Jesus is asleep, his head resting on the cushion at the stern of the boat. The description is surprising. We can understand that he might sleep, undisturbed by the usual rolling and pitching of a boat. But who is the sleeper who, even if exhausted, does not awaken in a boat tossed in all directions by a furious sea and, moreover, filling with water? The commotion of his companions around him, their probable yells in order to communicate above the din of wind and waves with one another and with people in other boats, surely this should be enough to arouse him from his deep sleep. Obviously, Mark is not bothered by these unlikely circumstances. On the contrary, he seems to voluntarily exaggerate the picture in order to emphasise the contrast between the anguish of the disciples, who think they are lost, and the unimaginable serenity of Jesus, whom the storm disturbs not a bit. We are reminded of another night in which, after the Lord’s arrest and death, the disciples were filled with terrible anguish. Then again, and even more than on the Sea of Galilee, they thought that all was over for them. The sleep of Jesus in the stern of the boat evokes the sleep of death and of Jonah in the monster’s belly to which Jesus himself had referred when he was speaking in veiled terms of his stay in the tomb. (Matt 12:40) Attentive readers discover in these coincidences—whether or not Mark intended them—a first enlightenment on the meaning of this episode. As a conclusion of the discourse in parables, he shows Jesus victorious over everything evoked by a stormy sea: the demons’ attacks and death.

Awakened, Jesus ‘rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Quiet! Be still’’ He speaks here in the same way he had addressed the demon who possessed the man in the synagogue at Capernaum. At that time Jesus had rebuked him and said ‘Quiet! Come out of him!’ The account of the calming of the sea thus makes us think of an exorcism by which, in a single word, Jesus sends back all the infernal powers to the depths of their dwelling into which the sea wanted to engulf the disciples. And, as after driving out the demon, ‘there was great calm.’ But Jesus addresses his disciples, ‘Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?’

This twofold reproach surprises us. How can Jesus reproach his disciples with being afraid when they were in such dangers? Moreover, when they wake him up, they speak to him in terms akin to those of the Psalmist entreating God for help: ‘Awake! Why are you asleep, O Lord? Arise! Cast us not off forever!’ (Ps44)

‘Awake, and be vigilant in my defence; in my cause, my God and my Lord.(Ps35).

But in the disciples’ case, reproach predominates, ‘We are lost, don’t you care about it?’ They feel that they are abandoned to their own devices, powerless against the hostile furious sea. Again, we are thinking of the distress of the disciples, ‘slow of heart to believe’ even after the first announcement of the resurrection. ‘But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place’ (Luke 24:21) Seeing the great calm that succeeds the storm, the disciples are ‘filled with great awe.’ But they further ask themselves, ‘Who then is this whom even the wind and sea obey?’On Easter Day also, the women’s report that they had found the tomb empty ‘astounded’ the downcast disciples who were walking on the road to Emmaus, ‘Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but they did not see.’

Mark did not write this story in order to transport us to the shores of the Sea of Galilee and have us recreate in our imagination the storm quelled, one evening, by Jesus. The Church for which he wrote was experiencing other storms that was shaking its trust, its faith. It ran the risk of being overwhelmed by skepticism and fear, unable to understand why it had so many trials to undergo: ‘Where is the promise of his coming? From the time when our ancestors fell asleep, everything has remained as it was from the beginning of creation.’ (2 Peter 3:4) Peter’s two letters strive to protect Christians against those who make similar insinuations. At the same time, the letters stress the ‘normal’ character of persecutions that must not be seen as a tempest about to submerge everything. History witnesses to the fact that at all times, the Church has been shaken by storms, in the midst of which God seems to forget it. The crisis and disturbances afflicting the physical world and society can also trouble minds and provoke reactions of fear and panic. When we feel like a boat caught in a squall that dangerously makes sport of it, everything reels, and we may come to the point of even doubting God, of wondering whether God has lost control of the boat. But deep in our hearts where God resides within us, we know this can’t be so. Throughout history the Church has suffered crisis, schisms, heresies and many other storms which have threatened to undermined Christian unity, things that have shook the Church to its very foundations, and yet it still stands, for the foundation of the Church is Christ himself;: ‘And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ We are on a journey toward our homeland and this passage toward another shore cannot be made without the risk of disturbances and storms that violently shake the boat of the Church and seem about to engulf it. This is not the time to yield to panic, but to trust in God, who says from the midst of the tempest, ‘Do not be afraid.’

We come to the liturgy with our worries and preoccupations, our joys and sorrows, sometimes our fears and anxieties. The celebration— the proclamation of Scripture; general intercessions; the Eucharist, the memorial of Christ’s pasch offered for the whole world—assumes all, by integrating them into a vision that encompasses the whole of the history of salvation and its unfolding in space and time until its fulfilment at the Lord’s second coming. The broadening of perspectives does not dissolve or minimise the importance of our personal difficulties. We can clearly see the trials the Church and Christian communities are undergoing today. But the liturgy of these last two weeks reminds us that we are still at sea, still in the process of navigating to the other shore, and if we are buffeted by storms, we must remember that the Lord is with us. He is watching even when he is ‘in the stern, asleep on a cushion’ We should never doubt it in spite of appearances to the contrary. Such certitude causes us to cry to him with faith and trust—with one word he can dispel all storms, quell all tempests. This assurance must give the boldness to go ahead without being disheartened by anything.

‘O give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever.’