We are back to Ordinary Time after last week’s feast, though the 18th liturgy is not picked up.
Most of the time in ordinary life, we have to take in faith the existence of God and simply have to guess what it would mean to ‘experience’ Him. At special moments, the veil of human limitation is lifted and someone receives a glimpse of what ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard’ of the depth of divine reality. We have two of these in the readings today.
1 Kings 19:9, 11-13
This was a such a revelatory time in the life of Elijah. The moment can stand alone, but for a fuller understanding of how this fits into the life of this early prophet, read the whole chapter 19. A summary: Elijah fled out into the desert, in fear of his life. He walked 40 days to the mountain where Moses had received his vision of God’s power. Here that is named ‘Horeb’, though in other texts, it is called Sinai, a name more familiar to us. Elijah was discouraged and ready to die when God promised to ‘pass before him’.
In the dramatic experiences of Moses on Sinai (Exodus 19:18-19) God’s presence was shown in powerful and terrifying natural effects: storms, smoking fire and earthquakes. Those events, which perhaps were expected by Elijah, are detailed in a literary crescendo when a series of such terrifying events happen but ‘God was not in’ them. ‘Gentle breeze’ of the translation we hear does not follow the Hebrew well and it masks mystery in the original words. This are better said to be ‘the sound of tiny silence’ or ‘a sound of sheer silence.’ On the surface this is a contradiction – a paradox that should not be ignored for it offers a deeper meaning that is hard to express in ordinary words. God’s presence is ‘beyond’ even our imagining and something Elijah (and therefore those open to reflecting on it) have to receive as best they can. God does not fit logical categories but is a deeper and more ‘real reality’ and that is something the Bible often struggles to find words to explain. Elijah covers his face in reverence as he understands that God is present to him in this strange moment of ‘the sound of silence’.
God revealing Himself would be the reason the liturgy choses this to lead to the Gospel.
The psalm today is not as closely related to the first reading as usual. It is, however, a good presentation of the Hebrew concept of what God is in the world and how God is found in the ordinary conditions of life.
We have finished Chapter 8 of this Letter in which St Paul has described, almost mystically, our relationship to God, Jesus and the Spirit. Now he turns to two issues that concern him to the depths of his being – how God deals with what were the two communities from which the early church was formed. Today we have his feelings on the Jews, and next week it will be the Gentiles. As a converted Jew himself, Paul has the desire – expressed in words of great emotion – that his fellow Hebrews will also embrace Christ. Later he will make clear that he still hopes for their ultimate union with Christ.
Despite this Letter being part of Christian scripture, the long history of the church has shown that instead of feeling such pain and desire for the salvation of the Jews, many Christians have instead persecuted them. The official Church of our time has condemned this past outlook, recognizing it as historically a background for the Holocaust under Hitler. The Second Vatican Council in the document, Nostrae Aetate, called for dialog with other religions, that is the challenge for our times – listening to and caring about others of all faith traditions.
This story is found in both Mark and Matthew with some variations, the most noticeable being that only Matthew has the story of Peter getting out of the boat to reach Jesus. This is the first time Matthew writes of Jesus going off on his own to pray, although mentioning Jesus praying alone is frequent in Luke. Our translation says he went ‘into the hills’ but the Greek is ‘to the mountain’ but with no mountain named. In this gospel, a mountain top is a favoured location for union with God and so is appropriate here.
It is said that storms can rise suddenly on the Sea of Galilee and that seems the case now, where the disciples – who would have been used to sailing at night as a good time for fishing – are caught out by the unexpected storm. The fourth watch in Roman calculation was between 3 and 6 am. They were already frightened by the apparent danger, but even more so when they think they see a ghost.
Commentators cite various Old Testament passages that show God in control of the seas (such as Psalm 77:19, Job 9:8, and 38:16, Isaiah 43:16, and Sirach 24:5-6) so Jesus ability to cross the water suggests divine power. The words he uses to the frightened disciples are translated as ‘It is I,’ but the Greek allows for ambiguity. It is literally ‘I am’ which could be an identification equivalent to our ‘It’s me’, but I AM is the self-designation of God in the Old Testament. I do not see why Matthew does not have the phrase of Mark – Jesus ‘meant to pass by them’ which subtly links this to the experience of Elijah when God ‘passed by him’ in a revelation. Perhaps Matthew feels the words would be misread by those less familiar with the Hebrew, and taken to mean that Jesus was uncaring of the disciples’ predicament.
There are various clues that Matthew is treating this as an allegory, or symbol for the church of his own time. The boat being ‘tormented’ is not sailing language, but hints at the trials and persecutions that came to the early Christian community. The action of Peter also highlights experiences those who start out confidently to follow Jesus, but lose trust and ‘sink’ beneath the difficulties.
Peter with the initial boldness and confidence we often see in the gospels sets out to join him, but his faith fails –his weakness is something else the gospels do not hesitate to show. ‘You of little faith’ is a favourite expression of Matthew, which contrasts with those of ‘no faith’. They have some but fall short of complete trust. (We do not know why Peter a number of times plays a special role in Matthew’s gospel; he may have been specially reverenced in the community Matthew shared, or it may have been important to him to stress his leadership in the Twelve.)
In Mark, the reaction of the disciples to Jesus’ action is puzzled, for ‘they did not understand about the bread’. That was the feeding of the 5000 which occurred just before this section. It seems Jesus expected them to have seen this as divine power. In Matthew we see instead their firm conviction that he is the Son of God and they kneel to worship him right there in the boat. In different ways, both evangelists show what may have been the first insight of disciples who begin to realise that there is something importantly different about Jesus – a man, yes, but more than that.