Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Be Brave! Don't Be Afraid!

Today’s Gospel is the last episode in the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Jesus tells his disciples to board their boat, and return to the other side of the lake, while he stayed behind. After the crowd has dispersed, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray. By nightfall, he was there all by himself. In the meantime, the boat, now several miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, since it was travelling against the wind. During the fourth watch of the night – between three and six o’clock in the morning – Jesus came to them, walking on the surface of the water. They were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.

At once, Jesus spoke to them. “Be brave. Don’t be afraid.” Then Peter said, “If it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come ahead!”

When Peter started to walk on the water, he soon became aware of how strong the wind was, and he began to founder, and to sink. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately stretched out his hand, caught him, and said, “O you of little faith! Why were you doubtful?”

We are pretty much like the disciples. For some reason we find it difficult to believe that Jesus will keep his promises. That may be because we rarely experience someone to be constantly faithful to us, or perhaps that we are aware of our own weaknesses, and we do not consistently abide by our promises to others. In a word, we have trouble living up to our commitments.

After Peter got back aboard the boat, the wind died down. The disciples in the boat turned to Jesus and did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God!”

The little boat crossing the stormy lake is a perfect parable of our own life. My ancestors in Normandy used this expression, “Le bateau est si petit, et la mer est si grande!” (The boat is so small, and the sea is so vast!”) Another resident of Normandy, Therese Martin, a young woman from Lisieux, echoes the same sentiments, when she writes, “I was in a sad desert -- or rather, my soul was like a fragile boat without a pilot, given up to the mercy of the waves. I knew that Jesus was sleeping in my boat, but the night was so dark that it was impossible to see Him.” After a while, the sadness was replaced by joy, and she wrote, “Instead of the wind that had tried me, now a gentle breeze filled my sails, and I began to believe that I would reach the blessed shore, now starting to seem so close!” There would be many more storms during Therese’s brief life, but her patient endurance – and her trust in God – gave her courage during the storms and patience in the doldrums.

Fifteen hundred years earlier, Augustine of Hippo mediated on the same boat, and saw the image not so much of an individual incident, but as a figure of the community.

“The boat carrying the disciples – that is the church – is rocking and shaking amidst the storms of temptation, while the cross winds rage on. Our enemy, the devil, strives to keep the wind from calming down. But greater is he who is persistent on our behalf, for amid the ups and downs of our life, he gives us confidence. He comes to us and strengthens us, so that we are not jostled and thrown overboard. Although the boat is cast into a stormy sea, it remains a boat. It carries the disciples and it receives Christ. On the water, the boat is in certain danger; but without it, we would surely perish.

The conclusion is this: Stay in the boat and call upon God. When all good advice has failed, the rudder is useless, and the spread of the full rig is more of a danger than an advantage, when all human assistance and strength have been forsaken, the only recourse of the sailor is to cry out to God. The question is this: Will He who helps those who are sailing to reach port safely abandon his church and prevent it from attaining to peace and tranquility?

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