Sunday, August 07, 2011

Christ in the Midst of the Storm

Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee"

(Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 6-7 August, 2011 at Ss. John and James Church in West Warwick, R.I.; See 1 Kings 19:9-13 and Matthew 14:22-33)

Have you ever felt completely overwhelmed by the difficulties and complexities of life? I am sure that we have all felt that way at one time or another. Have you ever asked yourself: Where is God in all of this? I cannot see God at work in my life…I cannot find God in the midst of all the difficulties I am facing.

That may have been what the Prophet Elijah was thinking in our first reading this morning. That reading from the First Book of Kings describes how:

At the mountain of God, Horeb, Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
—1 Kings 19:9

He was not taking shelter in the cave because it was raining (in fact, it had not rained in a long, long time because Elijah himself had prophesied against it!). Neither was Elijah taking shelter in the cave because he was cold. He was taking shelter in the cave because there was a price on his head and he was literally running for his life.

In the chapters that precede 1 Kings 19 we discover the dramatic events which brought Elijah to that cave on the mountain of God. King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel, had turned away from the worship of the one, true God, Yahweh. In fact, 450 prophets of the false god Baal had seduced the people and their leaders into idolatry. Elijah defended the honor and holiness of God and stood alone against these false prophets; he publically humiliated them on Mount Carmel and then disposed of them, much to the chagrin of King Ahab and Jezebel (see 1 Kings 18:17-40).

The response of the Queen? To have the Prophet Elijah put to death. As a result Elijah rose quickly and fled from the land, ultimately seeking shelter in that small cave on Mount Horeb. He may very well have been thinking: Where is God in all of this? I cannot see God at work in my life…I cannot find God in the midst of all these difficulties I am facing.

That may also have been what the disciples were thinking in the Gospel we listen to this morning. St. Matthew relates how they were ordered by Christ to get into the boat and cross the Sea of Galilee. No sooner had they entered the boat when a terrible storm began to stir; they were being “tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against them” (Matthew 14:24).

Many of these disciples were fishermen. They would have understood how dangerous a storm on the Sea of Galilee could become. Perhaps they had known men of equal or greater experience who had died in storms on the Sea of Galilee. St. Matthew tells us that this battle for their lives raged up until the fourth watch of the night (between 3am-6am); they had been fighting it almost all night long, and the entire time Christ was up on the mountain, with God in prayer. They may very well have been thinking: Where is God in all of this? I cannot see God at work in this storm…I cannot find God in the midst of all the difficulties I am facing.

Maybe you have felt like that in your life. It is difficult for us to understand what seems so often to be the distance of God. Where is God in all of this? I cannot see God at work in my life… Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his second book on Jesus of Nazareth, writes about this mystery of the distance and closeness of Christ. Reflecting on this same incident of the disciples in the storm at sea, he likens that experience to the mystery of the Ascension of our Lord into heaven.

Remember when Christ rose from the dead, and appeared to His disciples. He had told them at that time He was now going to return to the Father. Naturally, they were distressed. How could they possibly live in this world without Christ, after all that had happened to them and all they had shared with our Lord? His presence among them had changed everything…and now He was going to leave them? Oddly, Christ had even said, “It is better for you that I go” (John 16:7). Better? Better to not have Jesus physically with them any longer? How is that possible?

It would be better because once Christ had ascended to the Father they would send the Holy Spirit who would dwell intimately with the Church and with each one of those disciples. His going away would be an even more intimate and personal experience of God than they could have possibly imagined!

Pope Benedict XVI says that this experience of the storm on the Sea of Galilee is an anticipation of this same kind of closeness, this same intimacy with God. He says that Christ on the mountain is not further away from those disciples who are struggling against the storm. No, He is closer than ever and “because he is with the Father, he sees them.” In a certain sense He sees them through the Father’s eyes, and because He sees them, says Pope Benedict, He comes to them.

It is not the case, then, that the burden falls upon us in the storms of life to see God at work, to find God in our lives and suddenly make sense of the sadness and difficulties that perplex us. No. God sees us. Christ sees us through the Father’s eyes and He comes to us!

Pope Benedict XVI eloquently encourages us:

In our own day, too, the boat of the Church travels against the headwind of history through the turbulent ocean of time. Often it looks as if it is bound to sink. But the Lord is there, and he comes at the right moment. “I go away, and I will come to you”—that is the essence of Christian trust, the reason for our joy.
—Pope Benedict XVI
Jesus of Nazareth: Part II, Pg. 285

Just one month ago I began my current assignment as Rector of the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence here in the Diocese of Providence. It is a tremendous responsibility which I both appreciate and am aware of daily. Upon beginning this ministry several people have approached me and said things like: “I am sure that God is calling priests to serve him in the diocese. What are you going to do to bring them into the seminary?” or “You are now responsible, in part, for the preparation and formation of future priests in the Church. What do you think of that?” Truth be told, in many ways it is overwhelming. Those questions are as perplexing for me as they would be for anyone.

But, nonetheless, I am also filled with trust, anticipation, even joy. I know that the one who called me—in the midst of so many storms and doubts and fears; that same God who called me and guided me so faithfully and fruitfully in seminary and in the priesthood—that same God is calling many men to serve Him faithfully in the priesthood now. He comes to us when we need Him most and I know that He is with the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence and with all of the men studying for the priesthood here even now. I know that He who called us is faithful and He will guide us through all the storms of life.

I would invite you to please join me in prayer for all of them and for those whom God is calling, even now, to the priesthood and religious life. May they be able to listen to that "still, small voice" that Elijah heard on the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:12), and may we all hear clearly the voice of Christ who came to the disciples in the midst of the storm and who always comes to us when we need Him most. May He lead us ever closer—through the priesthood, through the Eucharist, and through the preaching of the Word of God—to the shores of salvation.