[Homily: 1 Kings 19:9a. 11-13a; Mt. 14: 22-23]
Our readings today tell us how God makes himself present in our lives. They invite us to respond to this God. And to reflect on the manner in which we respond to God.
But perhaps the first thing that we must acknowledge in today’s world is that many of us would much rather ignore this presence – or crowd his presence out of our lives. It’s the spirit of the secularized world: it is more fashionable no longer to have to punctuate our lives with reminders of his presence. Religious symbols can be downplayed, or removed from our lived space; the crucifix, the statue of Mary, pictures of the saints, the rosary, the Belen at Christmas can all yield to modern secular art, to neutral bangles and beads, or contemporary kitsch. No need anymore for the devotional practices which used to fill our lives with the presence of God: morning prayer to start the day, a morning offering to offer all that occurs in the day to the Lord, evening prayer to end the day with thanksgiving, the angelus twice daily to remind us of how blessed we are in the Incarnation, prayers before and after meals to thank God for the all his gifts in our lives including the food of which we partake, the daily or even the Sunday Mass, in which we enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery. Enough for the day is daily exercise, daily coffee at Starbucks, daily self reflection on our performance or non-performance in the office or in the bedroom, the daily routines with family, colleagues, friends and the people along the way. Through our own personal iconoclasm, we remove from our consciousness the presence of God.
Then, often, we crowd God out of our lives, or at least we try – even though in our unreflected piety we may not be conscious of it. Sometimes, in our occasional prayer, we chatter so much, and fill it with so many of our brilliant words, words, words, that we leave God no chance to talk to us. In our service of others, we fill our day with so much frenetic, hectic, messianic activity in God’s name, that there is no space for God to enter. We love to fully take charge, to master our world absolutely, to decide ourselves about the way we use our time and energy, especially on Sundays, that we crowd God out of our worlds. Some people do this rather deliberately. Most people don’t. Crowding God out of our lives today comes with the global roadshow, the morning news, the daily media commentaries, and perhaps even with the sorry ineptness of pastors to address this situation. Rather than be part of their increasingly-weird, world-unfriendly ghetto, we prefer the culture of the secular.
It is in this context that I think our readings in today’s liturgy should be appreciated. They are a study in contrasts of images, experiences, and moments of the Holy. They are indicative of God’s unchanged, pervasive, self-asserting presence in our world and in our lives, not necessarily because we want him to be there, but more so because he wants to be there. Incredibly, we may not care for his presence, but he cares for us so much that he makes his presence felt.
First, from the remarkable first reading from the Book of Kings, the contrast of images. On the one hand, images of awesome power: a strong and heavy wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord, an earthquake, a fire. We may recall our own recent experiences of these phenomena. Wind: When I was in Naga I built a new high school. A strong wind, a typhoon came, that removed the roof over the stage of our covered courts, rolled it over the roof, and tossed it on the other side of the building. It collapsed all the upper-floor ceilings of the new school. Earthquake: just recall the images of the earthquake in Japan, which caused the horrible destruction of the mighty tsunami. Fire: remember the Ozone disco fire of 1996 in QC which tragically killed 162 trapped people? Remember the more recent fire in Barangay 31-D of Davao which razed 300 homes to the ground? All this stunning power is contrasted in the reading from Kings with a ”a tiny whispering sound.” In these contrasting images, there are contrasting experiences and emotions. On the one hand, the images are fearsome, scary, terrifying. On the other hand, the image is gentle, small, almost silent.
In this first reading, the presence of God is found not in those experiences which “shock and awe”. When Elijah heard “the tiny whispering sound,” he “hid his face in a cloak” in acknowledgement of the presence of God.
Sometimes, even in our secularized world, God reveals himself in the most subtle of ways: in the gentleness of the breeze, in the multiple hues of a flower in morning light, in the surprise of a baby’s smile.
This is not to say that the Lord does not sometimes use “shock and awe” in order to shake up our lives to allow his presence to be felt. The fear that comes when the flashfloods have forced you onto your roof, the terror that comes when the earth does not cease to quake, the horror of burned bodies and broken lives due to a fire, are all occasions in which one can be jolted into re-recognizing the Power in the universe greater than our power, Being in the world more absolute than our being, the simple, compelling presence of God in our lives. In awe and fear, one cries, “Be merciful, Lord!” Or, “Help me, Lord. Please, help me!”
There is something like that in the Gospel. It was the dead of night. The disciples’ boat was being “tossed about by the waves, since the wind was blowing against it.” Already there was the experience of danger, of loss of control, of power greater than themselves. Then, suddenly, they see the figure of a man walking on the water. They are terrified. They think it is a ghost! The man, Jesus, however, approaches them to say, “Take courage. Do not be afraid. It is I.” Take courage. Your God is in charge, not you. I am here.
In the presence of God, Peter was drawn to approach the Lord. “If it is really you, command me to come to you walking on the water!” “Come,” the Lord called.
So long as Peter’s gazed was fixed on Jesus, he overcame the impossible and walked on the water. But when he took his gaze off Jesus, disconnected himself from the special power that comes in relationship with Jesus, and feared that he could not control the force of the wind and the waves, he sank. Of course, the truth was: on his own, he could not control the force of the wind and the waves, the trials and tribulations which come with life, the temptations and the guilt. Disconnecting himself from Jesus, he had to sink. Again, the experience of power beyond oneself compelling him to call out to God. And so his panicked plea: “Lord, save me!”
The good news was that the hand of the Lord was there to grasp his hand, to hold him, to save him.
How have you experienced the presence of God in your lives – as our world becomes increasingly secularized and religious symbols seem to fall into disuse? No matter how secularized our world becomes, God makes himself present in our lives “in shock and awe” experiences, but also in the gentle breeze. The readings today invite us to recognize his presence, respond, and reflect on the manner in which we respond. God is holiness that attracts us to the Holy.
Before the Holy, we can only bow down. He picks us up. He leads us ever more deeply into the Holy.