Wednesday, July 1, 2009

23. The Cost of Calm (Mt 8:18-27)

“Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him fulfill the end for which he is created.”

- St Ignatius of Loyola

Matthew 8:18-27

When Jesus saw the great crowds all about him he gave orders to leave for the other side. One of the scribes then came up and said to him, ‘Master, I will follow you wherever you go’. Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’. Another man, one of his disciples, said to him, ‘Sir, let me go and bury my father first’. But Jesus replied, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their dead’. Then he got into the boat followed by his disciples. Without warning a storm broke over the lake, so violent that the waves were breaking right over the boat. But he was asleep. So they went to him and woke him saying, ‘Save us, Lord, we are going down!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you so frightened, you men of little faith?’ And with that he stood up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and all was calm again. The men were astounded and said, ‘Whatever kind of man is this? Even the winds and the sea obey him.’

Christ the Lord 

St. Matthew is still showing us Jesus’ credentials. Not only does he heal the sick, but he also has power over the elements of nature. Storms were frequent in the Sea of Galilee, situated like a bowl surrounded by mountains, whence strong winds came sweeping across the water; violent storms would brew suddenly and then just as quickly play themselves out. At least some of the disciples present were fishermen, so they knew the weather patterns well, and they knew how to navigate a boat to ride out a storm. For them to panic means that the situation was truly perilous – the waves were high enough and the wind strong enough that they feared shipwreck. And yet, for Jesus, all it takes is a word to rein in the violent primal forces.

The passage is reminiscent of the Book of Jonah. Jonah too was asleep in the hold while the ship’s crew panicked. In that case as well, God calmed the sea in an instant – as soon as they threw the disobedient prophet into the water. But there is a difference. In Jesus, St. Matthew shows us, the very God who acted from on high to bring Jonah to Nineveh has come to dwell among men. No wonder the disciples were “amazed” – they were just starting to get the picture: Jesus is the Lord.

Christ the Teacher

The Church has long seen in this passage an analogy for the life of every Christian. The storm rages and threatens and batters the boat – just as temptations, sufferings, persecutions, and difficulties unceasingly beat against the mind and will of the Christian. Sometimes it seems that they are too much – the journey of doing God’s will is simply too difficult. Panic sets in. But the Holy Trinity has been in the Christian’s soul the entire time, ever since the day of baptism. And when human efforts fail to calm the storm, the Christian remembers the Lord, turns to him, and asks for help. Soon Jesus restores the “great calm” that comes from confiding in the power and the promises of God instead of in the dim knowledge and withered strength of self.

St. Therese of Lisieux used to meditate on this passage in times of inner turmoil or darkness. But she wouldn’t wake up the Lord. For her, it was enough to go over and sit beside him as he slept. Let the tempest rage; stay close to Christ and all will be well.

Christ the Friend 

At this point in St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus has not yet called apart his Twelve Apostles. A larger group of disciples, including the future Twelve, is following him. As he prepares to get away from the crowds and spend some time with them across the Sea of Galilee, a couple of newcomers approach him and ask to be let into the group. They have been watching and listening, and Jesus has moved their hearts. But the Lord doesn’t exactly welcome them with open arms.

He doesn’t send them away, but he does point out that following him will not be easy. They will have to forego some of the comforts and stability enjoyed by their peers and neighbors (“the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head”); they will have to make their relationship with him their highest priority – even higher than good and natural family ties (the disciple who requests that Jesus let him “bury his father” is expressing his willingness to follow Christ in the future, after his father dies, when it would be more convenient). Christ is a friend who loves too intensely not to demand the very best for his friends. Whenever he makes demands, it’s only because he loves.

Christ in My Life 

You are so patient with me, and you stay so close to me, that sometimes I forget about your greatness. You inspired awe in your disciples. There have been moments when I too have experienced profound reverence in your presence. Jesus, don’t let me take you for granted. Remind me of your greatness; make me worthy to serve such a Lord; make me follow you as you deserved to be followed…

Are you pleased with how I react to the storms that come into my life? They are precious moments, when things come into focus, when you remind me of my fragility and weakness. I want to stay close to you; I want to lean on you; I want to work hard for your Kingdom and even suffer for it, but always with a joyful heart, because you are always in the boat of my soul…

What are you asking of me right now, at this specific point in my life, that makes me uncomfortable? Is our friendship worth that kind of sacrifice? All I have to do is look at the crucifix and you give me the answer: of course it is. I want to follow you, Lord, and I want to help many others follow you as well. You are my life and my salvation – what could I possible fear?... 

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

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