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When the Church is Sinking and We are Perishing

As a reminder, the antiphons for Holy Mass for these last Sundays of Epiphanytide are the same. This shows us how, linked as they are, they are anchored in the Feast of Epiphany and they underscore the divinity of the Lord manifested through His miracles. The nature of the miracles themselves reveal that Christ is not just some garden variety wonder worker or holy man. He is God incarnate.

That’s the context of this Sunday in its liturgical season. Let’s turn to the context of the Gospel reading for Sunday. We are in Matthew 8, which followed the Sermon on the Mount discourse covered in chapters 5-7. Last week, also in chapter 8, we heard how Christ went to Capharnaum on the Sea of Galilee and healed both a leper and the Centurion’s servant. The Lord then went to Peter’s house and cured his mother-in-law’s fever, after which He performed healings and exorcisms. Because of the vast crowds, the Lord determined that they would “cross over to the other side” of the Sea.

While crossing the Sea of Galilee they encountered a storm that terrified the Apostles, in a boat, probably Peter’s own, handled by life-long professional fisherman in their home waters.

Why were they so afraid? After all, the freshwater Sea of Galilee isn’t that big, only 64 square miles. It’s not as if they were out on, say, the vast Lake Superior in the United States where the wind can whip up monster waters that overwhelm 800 foot ore freighters. A storm bad enough to terrify professional fisherman on that little lake must have been spectacular.

One thing I learned during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is that the Sea of Galilee is pretty much surrounded by heights. Powerful winds, funneled toward and down to the water could possibly generate waves from more than one direction, a herring-bone sea, which is far more difficult to predict and navigate. Also, ancient people associated bodies of water with demons. The Lord had just exorcised many demoniacs with, no doubt, a fair amount of writhing and shrieking. Did the Apostles think they heard voices in the howling winds as the seas heaved about them?

The Apostles cried to the Lord and roused Him up saying that they were afraid they were going to die. Jesus didn’t pray that the sea be calmed. Rather, He calmed the storm by speaking to, indeed by “rebuking,” the wind and sea.

If you were a Jew of the 1st century, after things had settled down, you would probably have remembered the story of the prophet Jonah, on the run from God and His command to go to Nineveh. The ship Jonah took to escape was in danger of being wrecked because of a storm God sent due to the prophet’s infidelity. The crew awakened Jonah and, at his direction, threw him overboard, but he was saved by being swallowed by “a great fish.” The crew prayed to God for salvation from the storm and, afterward, offered sacrifice to God and made vows, which is how covenants are sealed. Jonah was swallowed up for three days and nights, the so-called “sign of Jonah” which foreshadowed the time Our Lord was in the tomb.

All through the history of our salvation there are examples of how God controls waters, by Himself or in His servants. Moses parted the Red Sea (Ex 14). Joshua and the people of Israel crossed over the Jordan River after three days of camping when the feet of the priests, carrying the Ark of the Covenant touched the water (Joshua 3). Through prayer, Elijah halted and restarted the rain after three years (1 Kings 18).

The quintessential moment of God calming waters is in Genesis 1:2: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” The “spirit, breath, wind,” Hebrew ruah, didn’t just “move” across the waters, it “fluttered,” rakhaf, in the image of a bird whose wings are over its young, brooding, with a connotation of care and love. Fast forward to the baptism of the One “through whom all things were made” (John, Prologue) by John the Baptist in the Jordan. The Spirit of God, Greek pneuma, “spirit, breath, wind,” descended on Christ in the waters of the Jordan (Matthew 3) in the shape of a bird, a dove, with fluttering wings. That dove at the waters of the Jordan recalls the recession of the destroying Flood and the beginning of the Covenant with Noah (Gen 8). Noah was like a new Adam, foreshadowing the true New Adam, Jesus.

In the Psalms, God shows that He is great because He “rebuked” the waters at the time of creation (104:7). Psalm 107:23ff recalls the Exodus when God “rebuked” the Red Sea, saving His people by calming a storm and the sea.

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.

You can see the parallels with the boats, storms, waves, fear. They cried out to the Lord, Yahweh, and to Jesus. Both Yahweh and Jesus calm the storms, after which there was a great calm. In the Psalm, Yahweh brought salvation to His people by bringing order to chaos. Christ the Lord does the same. Jesus has the same power as God alone showed in the Old Testament.

Christ is not just a moral teacher, a leader. He isn’t just Messiah. He is Lord of the cosmos. As the Creator calmed waters of chaos, so too can He calm our chaos.

When the Lord calmed the storm and sea in Matthew 8, He was in a boat that probably belonged to His disciples based there in Capharnaum, probably Peter’s boat. Christ calmed the chaos of Peter’s Barque.

If Christ could do that then, Christ can do that now. He can calm the chaos of storm and uncertainty that is tossing Holy Church to and fro.

We could connect the experience of the disciples in the Peter’s boat with our own experience of being in the Barque of Peter, that time immemorial image of the Church. I have in mind the words of Card. Ratzinger on Good Friday Stations in 2005, at the 9th Station. Who can forget that broadcast, which would cut back to the dying Pope John Paul, follow the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum on his television. Thus, Ratzinger, soon to be Pope Benedict XVI:

How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him! …Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion.

Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures. Have mercy on your Church; within her too, Adam continues to fall. When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.

In this little boat, tossed about so much we might think we will perish. It seems at times that the Lord is asleep. Do you, perhaps often, pray, “How long, O Lord!  Save us!” A great bishop of Milan, Bl. Idelfonso Schuster (+1954) suggests about the Lord, asleep in Peter’s Barque, that

Thus does He preach the spirit of mortification, of humility and simplicity in the exercise of sacred ministry. He slumbers indeed, but his heart still beats for us.

Pray for those who exercise sacred ministry.

Never give up hope for and in the wind-tossed, wave-ravaged Barque of Peter, for Christ is with us in her as in no other place, way, or community. We may be surrounded in the darkness of uncertainties, beset with the howlings of demonic messaging and even servants of the diabolical. We may be scudding along, taking on water from all sides with a thieving traitor as a twelfth part of our crew. Christ Jesus is in our boat and there is no safer place any of us could ever wish to be.

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