Sunday, June 21, 2015

Faith in the Storm, Christ in the Boat

Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633)

(12th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on June 21, 2015 at St. Aidan's Church in Cumberland, R.I. and Mary, Mother of Mankind Church in North Providence, R.I.; See Mark 4:35-41)

In the Catholic vision of things, the world around us matters.  Everything and everyone around us has profound meaning and purpose.  First and foremost, relationships and people matter.  But more than that, even the world we live in, nature and the environment, these things all matter in the deepest and most significant way.  Just this past week our Holy Father, Pope Francis, issued his new encyclical letter, Laudato Si, addressing specifically our responsibility to care for nature and the environment.  Referring to the words of the beloved St. Francis of Assisi, in his 13th century Italian poem, the Canticle of the Creatures, our Holy Father sings:

“Laudato si, Signore, per sora nostra matre terra,
la quale ne sustenta et governa, et produce
diversi fructi con coloriti flori et herba.”

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, 
Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us, and who produces
various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.

The way that we care for the people in our lives and the way we relate to the created world around us is, in fact, reflective of our relationship with God.  To look at it from another perspective, in the words of the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  We cannot truly relate to God on a deeply spiritual level if we are not attentive to His presence in persons around us and in the natural world.  We, likewise, express our love and affection for God by the way we treat the people and even the things around us.  With great appreciation for the material world God gave us, we can use these very things to bless and render thanksgiving to Him.

One of the most breathtaking and poignant examples of that expression is found in the way churches were constructed in the great cities of the world like Paris, Rome, Brussels and Cologne in the Middle Ages.  These magnificent basilicas and great gothic cathedrals were not made to be merely practical.  They were made from basic elements of wood and stone in order to express the glory and the grandeur of God.

The structure of these great churches, without exception, was cruciform; they were all fashioned in the shape of the cross.  The two side transepts formed the shorter cross beam, while the longer dimensions of the church consisted of the apse where the altar was located and the sacrifice of the Mass took place, and the central isle which is called the nave.

Aerial view of Cologne Cathedral

That word, nave, is taken from the Latin word navis, which means, “ship.”  If you look at the long, narrow ceiling of the breathtaking Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the vaulted ceiling comes together in a point, and the ribs along that ceiling make it look like the hull or the belly of an upside down ship.

The message being communicated is that the faithful enter into the mystery of the cross when they come to worship God; they enter deeply into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.  When they do so, they are also entering into the ship where Christ is the Captain and they are being kept safe from the chaos and the storms that could destroy their souls; they are being led to the safety of the harbor of eternal life with God.    

There is a beautiful expression of that mystery in the Gospel this weekend.  St. Mark tells us that Christ took the initiative and said to His disciples, “Let us cross to the other side” (Mark 4:35).    It is always Christ who takes the initiative in our spiritual lives, and He is constantly challenging us to leave behind the danger of the secular world, those tendencies that ruin Christian life and draw us away from Him.   The natural world is good and beautiful, as Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato Si, but secularization and a world without God will leave us empty and without joy; if we stay immersed in the secular world long enough we risk losing our souls.  “Let us cross to the other side,” (Mark 4:35), Jesus implores us.  There are three timely lessons that the Disciples of Christ teach us this weekend in answer to that great invitation.

Firstly we discover that Jesus, who takes the initiative and greatly desires that we make this journey to eternal life with Him, nonetheless always honors our freedom.  St. Mark tells us, “Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was” (Mark 4:36).  Jesus will never force Himself into the boat with us.  He takes the initiative in that loving encounter of faith, but He always waits for us to make the decision of whether or not we will receive Him intimately into our lives.  It is completely up to us if we want Him in the boat; if we want him in our lives; in our families; in our workplace; in our personal relationships.

Perhaps you have never really taken a moment to actually do that; it’s possible that you may have never actually knelt down in a Church like this one or in the privacy of your own home, and said, “Jesus, I want you in my life; I welcome you into my family, into my home, into my struggles and into all my hopes and dreams.  I want you to be an integral and intimate part of my life.”  If we have never had the chance to actually do that, there is no better time than right now.

Which brings me to the second important lesson that the disciples teach us this morning.  When we invite Christ into our lives and welcome Him into the boat with us, out of necessity we must also maintain a dialogue and a conversation with Him.  After all, it can be really awkward to be in a boat, in close quarters with another person, and never actually speak with them!  When we welcome Him into our lives we also have to speak to Him, maybe even complain to Him, thank Him, and share with Him our deepest secrets; in turn, we also have to be willing to listen to Him, listen to what He has to say to us as we accompany Him on that journey “to the other side.”   In the Christian tradition, obviously, that dialogue and conversation is called prayer.

There is a prayer, by the way, in our Gospel this weekend.  Unfortunately, it is not a very good one.  St. Mark tells us that after the disciples responded to Christ’s initiative and welcomed Him into the boat, suddenly a great storm rose up on the sea and they were in mortal danger.  The winds were threatening to capsize their vessel.  Water was coming up over the bow.  They were terrified, and they began to pray: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4: 38). 

Wow.  That is not a very good prayer, is it?  But before we judge these disciples, if we are honest, we can admit that we have perhaps all prayed like that before.  Lord, do you not care that my marriage is failing; that my friendships are floundering; that my work is flagging; that my personal life is in a shambles.  Do you not even care? . . .

And if we have prayed like that before, then we know that the answer usually comes before we even finish the prayer: Of course He cares!  Could God suffer and die on the cross for us, but then not really care about the troubles and the difficulties that we are facing?  Is that even possible?  Of course not!  When the disciples finally wake Him up, Jesus responds immediately:

He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!”  The wind ceased and there was great calm.
—Mark 4: 39

Jesus Christ most certainly cares about the dangers and the difficulties that we face.  But the question we need to ask this morning is not, “Does Jesus care?”  It is, instead, “What.  On.  Earth.  took the disciples so long to wake Him up in the first place?!”  It is not the case that Jesus is asleep in their lives, nor is He asleep in ours.  We are the ones who are often asleep in the spiritual life while the doors to prayer are wide open and Jesus Christ is waiting to hear from us.  Those disciples could have woken Him up and said, “Lord, there are some storm clouds out over the horizon and we are a little anxious right now.”  They could have woken Him even when things were calm and said, “Lord, what a beautiful sunset; we are grateful to be here with you.”  God is inviting us, every day, into that intimate and life-giving dialogue with Him.  Are we answering that invitation and growing in our personal lives of prayer?

The final lesson the disciples teach us this weekend is actually the foundation for the other two, and it has to do with the question Jesus asks them at the end of that remarkable Gospel passage.  After he calms the storm on the sea, and there is great peace, He turns to those disciples and asks, “Why are you terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?”  (Mark 4:40).  In other words, He is the Son of God; they have watched Him heal the sick and cast out demons.  He has command over the land and the sea and over all created things.  Have they not yet come to believe that God is here among them?  Do they not yet have faith?

There are two essential things that the Church teaches us about faith.  First and foremost, faith is a gift.  It is not the case that some people simply have it and some people do not.  Faith is not like golf or gardening: some people are good at it and some people are not.  No, faith is a gift given to us by God, so if you want faith in your life…ASK FOR IT!  God gives generously and freely, and one of the many things He is always willing to give us is faith.  But faith is also a response on our part.  We respond to God’s gift by ordering our lives according to the revelation of God and the by accepting Jesus Christ into our personal lives and living our lives, ultimately, for Him.   When we do that, there is no limit to what God is able to accomplish in and through us. 

Which brings me back to the original point of this homily: Everything in this life matters. 

Our Christian faith matters, for us and for the world around us.  God is calling each one of us to be transformed in faith and to be instruments of transformation in the world around us.

Are we willing to welcome Him into our lives, to bring Him into the boat with us this week? 

Do we long to enter ever more deeply into that intimate conversation with God called prayer, bringing our lives into conformity with His will and listening attentively to His voice crying out to us in the silence? 

And are we willing to respond in faith to the gift that God offers us in this life of discipleship and love? 

May we experience in our personal lives, in our families and in our Church that faith which guides us all through life, with Jesus Christ as our Captain, and may we one day enter into that safe harbor of eternal life with God.