Today’s readings present us with another theophany experience or manifestation of the divine as witnessed in two different encounters. One is Elijah's episode in the first reading while the other is in the gospel. The encounter with the prophet Elijah follows his ugly experience with the prophets of Baal and his effort to escape the terrible ruler Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel. The voice of the Lord commands Elijah to refocus, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.” And the Lord did pass by for Elijah. He is rejuvenated once again.
Just as the Lord is passing by in the Old Testament, so also Jesus is passing by in the gospel. Divine presence and power are revealed -walking on the waters and calming the storms and the winds. In both instances from the Old and the New Testaments, it takes faith to feel God. Hence the people exclaim at the end, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” The one question for reflection is, “Where is God at work in our lives and how do we feel his presence?
1. Only God can control the forces of nature.
Cosmological forces are used to express the appearance/passage of God in the Old Testament. Strong and heavy wind rends the mountains and crushes the rocks, earthquake shakes, fire burns, but Scriptures record that the Lord is not in any of these. Rather a tiny whispering sound conveys God’s presence for Elijah. This is important in this theophany episode because God cannot be confined within nature. The Psalm speaks of the greatness of the Lord this way, “LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place” (Ps. 8:1-3). Elijah is expecting the Lord in the natural vehicles, but the Lord controls everything in the universe. God speaks in the silence of divine majesty.
Why would Elijah hide his face in his cloak as he stood at the entrance of the cave? The message here runs with the theme of God’s revelation in the Old Testament. Ancient Israelite tradition holds that God does not reveal his face to mere mortals. For example, Moses requests to see God’s face, but is told that no one sees the face of God and lives (Ex. 33:20).
However, God is felt through his created forces. In an address to a general audience on January 16th, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Yet what did seeking God’s face mean to the devout Israelite, who knew that there could be no depiction of it? The question is important: there was a wish on the one hand to say that God cannot be reduced to an object, like an image that can be held in the hand, nor can anything be put in God’s place; on the other, it was affirmed that God has a face — meaning he is a “you” who can enter into a relationship — and who has not withdrawn into his heavenly dwelling place, looking down at humanity from on high. God is certainly above all things, but he addresses us, he listens to us, he sees us, he speaks to us, he makes a covenant, he is capable of love.” God sees us even when it feels as if we are blinded by challenges and difficulties of life.
This makes more sense from the gospel narrative. Jesus encounters the people, feeds them, steps away to pray, reemerges in the fourth watch of the night and ultimately accompanies his disciples through their stretched period of fear and anxiety. In the New Testament, Jesus does not just show his face, rather he steps into the mess to get his people back into relationship with God. What does Jesus do in our troubled situations?
2. Jesus lays hold of our emotions
It is certainly not common to see a human being walk on the sea, but the question becomes whether Jesus is God simply because he is able to walk on the sea. The answer is no. Some magicians may use magical powers to walk on the sea. And Jesus shows this with his invitation to Peter, "Come." Peter walks on the sea for a moment, then becomes frightened and begins to sink. The limitations of Peter as human becomes evident. Like any human being, Peter is caught up in his negative emotion. He is overpowered by fright. In his sanguine nature also, Peter's excitement leads him to jump in for the exercise. His fear can also be linked with the initial reaction from his fellow disciples on seeing Jesus walk towards them at such an awkward hour, “They were terrified.” The sight of extraordinary circumstances can terrify us in life, but whether the Lord shows up and how he does that is something to take into consideration, "You have searched me, Lord, and you know me" (Ps. 139:1).
3. Jesus goes beyond controlling nature to show deep compassion for his loved ones.
Jesus is Lord because he is the Son of God. Jesus has absolute control over the forces of nature. Whatever he does is out of his love for humanity, including calming the seas and the storms. He comes to us with great care and compassion. Jesus shows his disciples that they are not abandoned at the time of fear. He speaks out to comfort them, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.” Jesus goes further to demonstrate his connection with Peter and rescues him from sinking. The New Testament Jesus brings God’s face to us, as Pope Benedicts remarks,
“I would like to dwell on the phrase: “reveals God’s face…” At a certain point the Apostle Philip asked Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” (Jn 14:8). Philip was very practical and prosaic, he even said what we ourselves would like to say: “we want to see him, show us the Father”, he asks to “see” the Father, to see his face. Jesus’ answer is a reply not only to Philip but also to us and it ushers us into the heart of Christological faith; the Lord affirmed: “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). These words sum up the newness of the New Testament, that newness which appeared in the Bethlehem Grotto: God can be seen, God has shown his face, he is visible in Jesus Christ.”
The divine manifestation in today’s gospel happens in stages:
1. Jesus feeds the crowd, then dismisses them.
2. Jesus goes up to the mountain alone to address the Father in prayer.
3. Jesus walks on the sea, to reengage with his disciples.
4. Jesus identifies the reason for fear in the disciples and reassures them of divine support.
5. Jesus invites Peter to walk along with him and saves him from sinking.
6. Jesus quietens the storms and the winds.
7. Those in the boat do him homage as the Son of God.
Obviously, the progression in the entire episode of divine manifestation as seen above depicts the overarching message of God's appearance in our lives. We can be like Elijah, like Peter, like the disciples or like the people in the boat, after the fact. Elijah is seized by his emotion. Peter is engulfed by fear. The disciples are terrified. But Jesus goes deeper to identify their reason for fear, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” We doubt because of fear of something dangerous or bad happening or about to happen to us. Our jobs on the line. Our finances depreciating. Our concern for bad economy. Our health due to illness. Our families in conflict and strife. Our children in danger from negative societal influences. Our addictions getting the better of us. Our faith is shaken and we see dimly. The realities of life’s challenges cause fears in us. We doubt and question, “Where exactly would God show up?”
The people in the boat finally experience the calming of the winds. These co-travelers of Christ recognize Jesus and exclaim, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Yes, Jesus shows up to calm the winds and the storms in the journey of life. Here’s the message, to imagine how stretched the disciples and the people are before the Lord steps in. The things of life definitely stretch our faith, yet the Lord shows up. Hope can be stretched but hope does not disappoint. Where exactly is God at work in your life? At what point does he show up? Walking with Jesus helps to stay close to the truly Son of God. Jesus does not allow us to walk alone. And we can exclaim, "How come the sea and the winds obey him!"
READINGS: 1st- 1 Kgs. 19:9, 11-13; 2nd- Rom. 9:1-5; Gospel- Matt. 14:22-33