By Br Julian McDonald cfc
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks…but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake…but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a gentle, whispering wind. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face. 1 Kings 19, 9-13
At once Jesus spoke to them: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Matthew 14, 22-33
Today’s first reading and gospel give us two examples of men who, in different ways, were struggling with their faith in God. To understand the first reading, we have to look at it in the context of the whole story of why Elijah was in the depths of depression and despair. Threatened by Elijah’s honesty and his decisive action of putting all the false prophets to the sword, Queen Jezebel set out to do away with him: “May the gods do thus and so to me if, by this time tomorrow, I have not done to your life what was done to each of them” (1 Kings 19, 2). Elijah fled across the desert, and was soon physically and emotionally exhausted. He became so depressed, that he even contemplated suicide. At the end of his tether, he sat under a broom tree and asked God to take his life: “Enough already; I’m ready to die:”
While we may not have reached the point of contemplating suicide, we can all find some consolation from Elijah’s story simply because we can resonate with some of his feelings. We know what it is to be down in the mouth, to be at the end of our tether. Loss, grief and fear touch us all, at one time or another, at the personal and communal levels. We struggle with the unpredictability of war-mongering political leaders, and taste the fear of unknown consequences that could come from decisions motivated by narcissism. We look with dismay at the plight of millions of refugees begging for shelter from nations deaf to their pleas. We are aghast that a football club will pay a transfer fee of 222 million euro to gain the services of a Brazilian player and pay him 550,000 euro per week, while tens of thousands of fellow human beings die daily from starvation and lack of clean water and sanitation. At the personal level we know the loss of loved ones through separation, imprisonment, divorce, disease and death. We know directly or vicariously the hurt that comes from job loss, broken trust, addiction, loneliness, betrayal and depression. We all have Elijah moments. We all know of friends and family who seem to have lost the will to keep going, who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Today’s story of Elijah is a reminder to us to step back from trying to control what is hurting us either from the outside or from within our own minds, hearts or imaginations. It’s an invitation to stop and listen for the presence of God who is not to be found in the spectacular but rather in the quiet of our hearts or in the gentle whispering of the wind. Uplifted by the encouragement of an angel, Elijah picked himself up and journeyed forty days and nights to the mountain of Horeb, where he took shelter in a cave. And there, the presence of God was revealed to him, not in thunder, lightning, earthquake or fire, but in a refreshing, gentle breeze. God was present to him in a way he least expected. And God comes to us, too, in ways we least expect.
While there are still people around who want us to view cataclysms, tsunamis and earthquakes as dire warnings and punishments from God, their threats and warnings don’t fit a God whom Jesus revealed as merciful, compassionate and loving. The American poet, Grace Noll Crowell surely got it right when she wrote: “Hold up your cup, dear child, for God to fill. He only asks today that you be still.” (Prayer for One Who Is Tired) If we’re patient enough, we will find God in the depths of our own hearts.
Today’s gospel story uses a different metaphor from the one we find in the Elijah story. We hear of a rather spooky encounter between Jesus and his disciples on a turbulent sea, where they are being battered by the waves on the outside and fear on the inside. Peter is us as he steps out of the boat in response to an invitation from Jesus. But as he gets closer to Jesus, he begins to sink. We have a desire to be open to Jesus’ invitation to come to him, but falter when he gets too close for comfort. He might ask too much of us. Perhaps it’s safer to know him from a distance.
There is real irony in all this, for our faith in Jesus matures as it is challenged in the rough and tumble of everything happening within us and around us. Moreover, closeness to Jesus will often mean venturing into turbulent waters, and taking the risk of “rocking the boat”. Living the way Jesus invites us to live, translating his message into action will involve us in actively confronting some of the agents of fear, disruption and injustice that unsettle our faith in the first place.
One of the obstacles we encounter as our faith struggles to grow and develop is to be found in the excuses we can make when the Gospel looks to be too demanding: “I’m not good enough, I’m not properly qualified, I’m no saint, I don’t have what it takes, I can’t do what’s expected”. We know we can put God off and shrink from the demands of the Gospel by a false humility that proclaims that we are not worthy. We want to forget Paul’s observation in his letter to the Corinthians: “God chooses the weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1, 27). Perhaps one of the reasons why Peter faltered and began to sink was that he did not have enough self-confidence, he did not think he was good enough for what Jesus wanted of him.
Even if our faith in God, Jesus and ourselves might not be all we would like it to be, we can find consolation in Jesus’ words of encouragement to Peter and to all of us: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”