In our Gospel reading last Sunday Jesus fed the Five Thousand and twelve baskets full of fragments remained over from the original five loaves and two fish, and in that miraculous feeding Jesus was preparing His disciples for the gift of the Eucharist which He was soon to bestow on His Church. Since that was a time of schooling for the disciples let us look carefully at Jesus' dealings with them immediately after that great miracle of feeding the Five Thousand to discover whether or not He might also have been preparing them for other mysteries soon to be revealed or gifts to be given; indeed, perhaps even helping us better understand our heritage and face up to events in our lives and in our world as Catholic Christians.
Soon enough, Jesus would be taken away from the disciples and His Church, first of all for only 3 days after His suffering and death on the Cross of Calvary, but subsequently -- for ages still unfolding -- by His glorious Resurrection and Ascension into heaven where, bodily glorified at the right hand of the Father, He makes constant intercession for us as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Christians at Rome.
And so now, immediately after the miracle of the feeding of the Five Thousand – foreshadowing, as we said, the Eucharist -- whilst the crowd were making their way home following the wandering shore line, the disciples, crossing the lake directly by boat, ran into serious difficulties when a sudden storm arose. Now, Peter’s boat has always been seen as a figure of the Church ever since Jesus first chose to preach from it to the crowds assembled to hear Him on the shores of the lake; and so the threatened boat bearing the disciples this stormy night is easily recognised as foreshadowing the Church that would subsequently carry the Gospel of Jesus across stormy oceans to hostile lands and continents ever new so that all peoples might hear the Good News of salvation. This sudden and violent storm on the Sea of Galilee was indeed, at the time, a matter of life and death for the disciples; but it was not just a chance happening that had caught Jesus and His disciples unprepared, but rather something Jesus willed to use in order to teach His disciples a lesson which -- as leaders of the Church of Christ throughout the ages to come -- they must never, ever, forget.
The boat was in difficulties that night on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus was not with the apostles. He was absent, physically, praying on the mountain (as St. Matthew calls it) just as -- after His Ascension -- He would be eternally seated, as St. Paul tells us, at the right hand of the Father in heaven:
Christ Who died is also risen (and) is at the right hand of God making intercession for us. (Romans 8:34)
The disciples, thinking they were alone, were extremely fearful, and it was most important for them to learn that no matter how lonely and vulnerable, threatened and dispirited, they might feel themselves to be, they would never and could never be separated from the protecting love and power of Jesus. And so -- though rapt in prayer -- Jesus was most surely aware of the danger in which they found themselves; and willing to help them in their need, He approached them walking on the sea. Whereupon, we are told:
They were terrified. “It is a ghost," they said, and they cried out in fear.
Surely, the future apostles of Mother Church were meant to remember this occasion vividly, it was an integral part of God's plan to prepare them for their future: for Mother Church, the barque of Peter -- following, pursuing, mankind wherever they might be found over subsequent long centuries -- would have to endure, and profit from, dangers and threats of all kinds, just as the disciples were intended to survive and learn from this near capsizal on the Sea of Galilee.
People of God, let us admire and give thanks for God's wisdom and love; for just as Jesus had already prepared the disciples for the Eucharist, so now He is gently, but most surely, preparing them for both His own absent-presence in Mother Church and also for the Father’s promised Gift to her of His abiding Holy Spirit. For, that spontaneous outcry ‘It is a ghost!’ on seeing the figure of Jesus approaching them through the storm and walking over the raging waters contained, in itself, unsuspected potential. For, whatever the future trials of Mother Church, the apostles were always to remember that security and peace would ever hold sway in Peter's barque so long as God's People could invoke the name of Jesus with faith and love, and -- in confident hope – trustfully commit themselves to the guidance of His Most Holy Spirit.
God never springs total surprises on His servants; He seeks to prepare them to appreciate and embrace His plans for their well-being. Consequently, People of God, we should always aspire to hear, and hope to learn from, God as He seeks to prepare us to walk ever farther along the ways of Jesus.
In our first reading we heard of Elijah who, of all the prophets, was the man for the big occasion. Didn’t he -- on Mount Carmel -- call upon the Lord to send down fire from heaven to consume the sacrificial offering he had previously carefully prepared by thoroughly soaking it with barrels of water? Didn’t he subsequently order the slaughtering of the 450 prophets of Baal who were Queen Jezebel’s favourites? Again, didn’t he revive from death the son of a widow of Zarephath before inflicting a drought upon Israel that went into its fourth year? Hadn’t he called down fire upon the soldiers of faithless king Ahaziah, before finally himself having been taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire? And in today’s first reading, he is seen again in a typically unique and climactic situation as he seeks to learn about his own future from the Lord:
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord; (and) after the wind there was an earthquake, and after the earthquake, there was fire.
In all these manifestations of primeval power, however, the Almighty Lord was not present. They were natural representations of the titanic events that had been part and parcel of Elijah’s life and had ruled his mind and heart thus far. But now they had to be put behind him in order that he might be exposed to the sustaining root and divine height of his own and indeed mankind’s mystery: his personal nothingness and impotence, along with the indisputable fact of being loved by and responsible to the Living God. Elijah had therefore to empty his mind and calm his spirit, to wait humbly and listen more closely than he had ever done before, because the Lord willed to communicate with His prophet through nothing more than:
A tiny whispering sound;
the voice of the Lord being carried – so slight it was -- as it were on the breath of a floating sigh (as one scholar, desirous of the utmost accuracy, poetically expressed it). Only in that ever-so delicately tense and yet most tranquil moment of self-less and attentive awareness in the depths of his own conscience was Elijah able to hear and recognize the Mighty One of Israel addressing him. Here we have the first Old Testament foreshadowing of the Christian teaching on individual conscience; a first intimation in the life of one who was one of Scriptures greatest extroverts, and of such significance that it would be enhanced and extended by another great prophetic figure, Jeremiah who says (31:33–34):
This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place My law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the LORD. All, from least to greatest, shall know Me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.
Here we should immediately recall that humble and immaculate virgin -- Mary of Nazareth -- who alone would hear the Angel Gabriel’s message of salvation in the depths of her own personal conscience and awareness. That was not due simply to the fact that the angel was to be sent only to Mary; rather is it the case that Mary would be – in her own time and subsequently throughout time -- the only one in the whole of Israel, and ‘a fortiori’ in the whole world, able to hear such an angelic voice, able to appreciate and respond to such a sublime vocation. Mary was and is unique: the only woman possessed of a heart and soul so humble, so devout, and, indeed, a conscience so pure, sensitive and tranquil, that the divine message would be clearly heard by her and freely allowed to bring forth its Fruit in her and through her.
People of God, just as the Lord prepared His disciples for life in, and leadership of, the Church, so is He always ready to guide all who are striving to be His faithful servants in Mother Church. However, it is a far too common failing among such disciples that they are not sufficiently strong in faith or humble enough in character to be able or willing to wait and listen for long. Many of them find listening wearisome, and quickly reject it as fruitless; whereas others become so anxious in their waiting that they are irresistibly primed to pre-empt rather than attend to any still, small, voice addressing them. Nevertheless, God will only speak Person to person when His words are able to be heard and understood, and likely to be appreciated and obeyed.
It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to My Father and learns from Him comes to Me. (John 6:45)
Truth and beauty go together; and holy Catholic living -- like Christian parenthood -- is to be seen as an art rather than a science. It is not merely a matter of factual knowledge and practiced techniques, but rather a loving appreciation of and response to spiritual reality, which is only known in the fullness of its integrity when its beauty is appreciated and its truth humbly embraced. In that sense we are called to become true artists! True artists have, at times been secretly admired because of their selfless commitment to their art irrespective of whether they have monetary reward or popular success; and that characteristic of certain great artists unconsciously relates them to, and directly reminds us of, the sublime virtues of divine love, spiritual sensitivity, and personal humility in the life of Mary, the supreme Christian artist.
People of God aspire to know Catholic truth and beg for grace to love it. Strive to become sincere artists of humble, Catholic and Christian, living. And to that end, be ever more and more desirous of hearing and learning from the still, small, voice of the Spirit of Jesus which can sound in and through all the daily happenings of your apparently ordinary life in Mother Church. But take care lest you make the same mistake as St. Peter, who, setting out – perhaps, as was his wont, over-exuberantly -- to answer the call of Jesus over the waters, did not keep his eyes fixed on Jesus: in an instant of anxiety he turned his eyes to the boiling waters instead of walking steadfastly and trustfully towards Jesus Who was calling him. Trust when broken, be it ever so slightly, cannot be taken up again at will; repentance and a rescue -- Lord save me! -- is required which only Jesus can ratify and effect:
Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the Lord and He shall give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:3-4)
The voice of conscience is too often tied up -- well-nigh exclusively -- in the minds of some modern Catholics, with situations predominantly imagined as unpleasant, threatening, disturbing: situations involving commands obeyed or disobeyed, investigating right and wrong, and, usually, apportioning blame; situations always uncomfortable for weak humans aware of their insufficiency.
However, in God’s gift – for conscience is a gift of intimacy with Himself -- there is also to be found an awareness of and joy in what is so supremely beautiful and sublimely true as can be communicated to us in no other way with such sensitivity as of that tiny whispering sound calling to be heard, understood, and embraced, in the depths of a tranquil, trusting, and most grateful conscience.
Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening.