[Homily. Live-Streamed Mass. 30 Jan 2021]
Our Gospel today from the fourth chapter of St. Mark begins on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee, possibly near Tiberias, where the sea is widest. So many people have come to listen to Jesus’ preaching that he gets into a boat to preach from there, while his many followers listen to him from the shore. The boat is his improvised stage, protecting him from the press of the people. He preaches to them using parables, telling them that the Kingdom of God was like a sower sowing seed on various types of land, or like the light of a lamp that is not to be hidden under a bushel basket, or like the planted seed that germinates and grows of its own accord overnight, or like the mustard seed which is the smallest of seeds but grows into a tree that houses many of the birds of the air.[i]
Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom of God belonged to his core mission, where his Father’s love and compassion was to take root in people’s hearts and bear much fruit, was to be light for people “who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,” was to grow in transformative influence over the believer and society of its own accord, and from the tiniest of beginnings was to grow into a large community in which diverse peoples would find their home.
At the end of the day of preaching from the boat, the people are dismissed, and the disciples decide to go to the other side of the lake. It is dusk, almost dark. Twelve apostles climb into the boat where Jesus already was, pushing it down heavily into the water. To get to the western side of the lake, not more than a dozen kilometers away, they raise their sail and begin to cross what is now the darkened sea. The journey would usually take about two hours. Tired from the day’s preaching, Jesus falls asleep on a cushion in the boat.
As they were crossing in the darkness, cold winds drop from the high mountains near the lake replacing the expanded warm air above the surface of the water. This causes a sudden, powerful and dangerous increase in the strength of the wind. The Gospel relates, “A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up” (Mk 4:37). The apostles frantically use whatever instrument they can find to bail out water from the boat; they know that should too much water accumulate, they would sink. In the near eastern cultural view, the deadly wind, the overpowering waves, the heaving sea are not just manifestations of nature but representations of cosmic powers of evil and chaos in the world. The apostles are gripped by fear. Panicking, they cry to the Lord, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” They need to awaken him to the danger. They need to alert him to their shared peril. If they were perishing, so was he; literally, they were in the same boat. He should at least be helping them with the water to save their lives. The Gospel relates, Jesus “woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Quiet! Be still’” (Mk. 4:39). The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then he asks them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not have faith?” (Mk. 4:40).
He was asking, “Do you not have faith in me?” “They were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this whom even the wind and sea obey?’” (Mk. 4:41). Who is this who has influence not only over nature but even over the powers of evil and chaos in the world?
The Markan intention is to proclaim: this man who preaches of the Kingdom of God is more than a man. He who wields the power of God, is God.
Psalm 107, which is associated with this Gospel, corroborates this, but with a twist. The Psalmist praises God whose interventions in history save us:
Some went off to sea in ships,
Plied their trade on the deep waters.
They saw the works of the Lord,
The wonders of God in the deep.
He spoke and roused a storm wind;
It tossed the waves on high.
They rose up to the heavens, then to the depths;
Their hearts trembled at the danger.
They reeled, staggered like drunkards;
Their skill was of no avail.
In their distress, they cried to the Lord,
Who brought them out of their peril,
Hushed the storm to a murmur.
They rejoiced that the sea grew calm,
That God brought them to the harbor they longed for.
Let them thank the Lord for such kindness,
Such wondrous deeds for mere mortals. (Ps 107, 23-31)
In this psalm, the “storm winds” and the “waves on high” do not belong to the realm of evil and chaos. They belong to Creator who uses them for his purposes. They are part of his divine “kindness” of leading us to recognize him as Creator and God, and to put our faith in him.
What may this Gospel then mean for us?
In our journey to enter into our heavenly reward, in our faith in Jesus as Savior, we experience our own squalls, where due to sudden violent winds, the waves begin filling our boat, and we feel imperiled. This may be due to a death in the family, a major illness, a sudden shift in family fortunes due to something totally underserved like COVID19. It may be an abrupt misunderstanding with a loved one, a deep experience of the poverty of another, a sudden insight into the role I play in the misery of another. It may be a clear understanding of what I am responsible for in the destruction of the environment, and my need to do something about it. In all of these we can be gripped by fear, self-doubt, disillusionment, and sorrow, then look upon the Lord who appears to be sleeping. We ask, “Teacher, do you not care that I am in such pain, that I am perishing? His answer: not a rebuke, but a reminder of who he is. “Quiet. Be still” he says. “It is I who am Lord of the wind and the waves, the sun and the moon, the light and the darkness. It is I who conquer evil and chaos. It is I who speak to you in joy and in sorrow, in triumph and in adversity, in sickness and in pain. It is I who speak to you the Father’s Word of Love from the Cross, I who lead you through the Cross to the Resurrection and in my Ascension to eternal life with the Father. So: Quiet. Be still! Listen to what I have to say in the wind and the waves I still, in the evil and in the chaos I have conquered. I am with you always. I will lead you home – into my Holy Sanctuary.[ii]
To him we may quietly respond with the psalmist:
O God, you are my God—
For you I long!
For you my body yearns;
For you my soul thirsts,
Like a land parched, lifeless,
and without water.
So I look to you in the Sanctuary [iii]
To see your grace and glory.
For your love is better than life. (Ps. 63:1-4a)
[i] Cf Mark 4: 1-33.
[ii] Cf. Hebrews 10, 19-25.
[iii] Ibid. Not just the sanctuary of the Temple of Jerusalem, but the Sanctuary in the Heavenly Jerusalem.