Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 8-13-17
Peace be with You,
Last weekend in our contemplation of our Lord’s transfiguration, we noted that not only this mysterious event had just as much to do with the transfiguration to be undergone by the Body of Christ, the Church, along with its individual members as it does with our Lord. This may seem a strange thing to say, but consider that our Lord had no need of a human nature, or anything else for that matter, as from all of eternity he is God from God, completely happy in himself. This necessarily leads us to the conclusion that his assumption of a human nature was done for us, taking on all that is ours in order that we might partake of all that is his. This is the magnanimous gesture on the part of our loving God that stands solidly at the center of the Christian faith today as it has from the beginning; a reading of the Fathers of the Church confirms this as all will in one way, shape or form echo the phrase that God became man that man might become God.
A slew of nuances would be needed to parse out that phrase and exactly what it means, but what is important for us to keep in mind as we continue our walk with Christ is that the transfiguration we witnessed last weekend is the end for which we have all been created. However, as we emphasized last weekend, whereas this underlying reality was somehow always present within the human nature of Christ because it was hypostatically united to the second Person of the Trinity, for us this is a process that will take an entire lifetime, as the parable of the treasure in the field reminded us a couple of weeks ago. What’s more, this transfiguration cannot happen of our own volition or under our own power as we saw last week, but can only happen through the action of God in our lives. Thus, it is imperative to walk in unison with him regardless of what life may throw our way, relying on the faith that tells us our God will never leave our side, and the hope that the purpose with which the human being was created revealed to us in Christ is in fact God’s will for us and that if we oblige, he will not allow that end to be thwarted. It is this message of God’s continual caring presence that lies at the heart of our readings this weekend.
As we noted at the beginning of last week’s reflection, the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration took precedence over the regular flow of Sunday celebrations, and thus, we have skipped over, as it were, the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary time. I bring this up once more because the gospel reading from that weekend would have been Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21). The importance of noting this will become more readily apparent after we have set the proper contextual stage for ourselves. In order to do this we will have to expand our textual area of investigation beyond that heard from the pews today.
Expanding the area we examine enables us to see that there is a common experience being had by the individuals we meet today, and this common experience is fear. This is readily apparent in our gospel story as we are told that as the disciples made their way across they were “beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out for fear” (Matt. 14:24-26). Now there is a lot going on here. A severe storm on sea is taking place, which would be enough to scare most of us (although being expert seamen perhaps the disciples were a bit used to this sort of thing). And, if the fear of capsizing wasn’t enough to scare them, the appearance of a ghost certainly was. In sum, we have the group of disciples on a boat in the middle of a stormy lake confronted by what they think is a ghost and have nowhere to run. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that they were, no doubt, in fear of losing their lives. Let’s leave them here a second and go check in on our other episode for today.
Our first reading comes from the book of First Kings, where we meet up with someone we heard about last week, Elijah. As we made note of last week, Elijah is one of the foremost prophets in the history of Israel, and he paid dearly for his efforts. Just prior to where we meet up with him today, the famous episode of Elijah triumphing over the prophets of Baal has just taken place, an episode which finds its end in the death of all the prophets of the idol at the command of Elijah (1 Kings 18:40). The problem with this is that the king and queen of the northern kingdom of Israel at the time were none other than Ahab and the infamous Jezebel whose god was Baal. Thus, when Ahab tells Jezebel that Elijah had killed the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:1), Jezebel replies “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2). We are then told, unsurprisingly that Elijah was afraid, and so “he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there” (1 Kings 19:3). Thus, Elijah, like the disciples in today’s gospel, finds himself in fear of losing his life, the difference is Elijah is not stranded on the sea and so he runs. And where he runs and for how long will break open the Scriptures for us this day.
After leaving his servant behind a day’s journey into the wilderness, Elijah sits down underneath “a solitary broom tree” (1 Kings 19:4). There, exhausted and no doubt afraid that he will never be able to outrun the wrath of the king and queen and therefore is just as stranded as the disciples, Elijah asks God that he might die saying “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4). Then, Elijah lies down awaiting death. The detail of the broom tree is significant here. You see a broom tree isn’t much of a tree at all, but it is one of the only bushes that grows in that desert and so provides much needed shade to travelers, however little. We might recall another episode of individuals wandering in the desert here, that of Hagar and Ishmael, after having been cast away from Abraham’s family (Genesis 21:14). Of note here is that Hagar finds herself wandering “about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba” (Genesis 21:14), the very same wilderness we are following Elijah through. And like Elijah, Hagar wanders for a while and then has nothing left and nowhere to go, Hagar fears for her life and the life of her child. Thus, she places him “under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off…for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept” (Genesis 21:16).
Notice please the distress and pain being experienced by these individuals. Elijah at this point must feel nearly forsaken by God, he has done what was asked of him, proclaimed the message of the One True God, and yet those who want him dead seem to have the upper hand; they have the wealth, power and the resources to take his life. And for her part, Hagar likewise feels totally abandoned, abandoned by those who were supposed to care for her, rejected by those who professed to be followers of the One True God. And because of this psychological and physical anguish, both wish to die. They see no way out, no hope; the one sole hope they have is that the God who gave them their first breath will now make this their last. And in both cases the response they draw from God is a definitive yes, a yes to their lives, not to their deaths. For our God is a God of the living (cf. Mark 12:27), who “did not make death, and does not delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13), not even the death of the wicked; instead he desires that all might turn toward him and live (Ezekiel 18:23). Thus, he implores us, “Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands” (Wisdom 1:12); for I have given you life to live (Wisdom 1:14), and desire that you live it to its full (John 10:10). This is a message we so desperately need to be reminded of today when both young and old alike feel as though there is no future and no hope for them and succumb in utter desperation to taking their own lives. The passages above remind us of how displeasing this is to God, but we must ask ourselves, who is it that he is displeased with? Is it them? Or does he turn a glance towards us and ask: ‘Where were you? Where were you when I needed you? As surely as these least of mine needed you, I needed you; to care for me, to feed me, to clothe me, to shelter me’ (cf. Matt. 25:42-46). To be sure, tragedies such as these happen with no warning sign, but how often don’t they happen due to our lack of attention, and even, criminally, with our very assistance!?!?
Today, we see God’s definitive yes to life given in the lives of these people, and it must be a response we continually echo, in our homes and schools, in our nursing homes and pediatric wards, until everyone knows without a shadow of a doubt that the God who called them into being desires life for them, desires to feed them and shelter them, just as he did for Elijah and Hagar and Ishmael. In both cases God provides them with the means to live; in Hagar’s case, water and protection are provided (Genesis 21:19-20), and in the case of Elijah food, water and rest are given (1 Kings 19:5-6), displaying the truth spoken by the Psalmist: “Even though I walk through the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” (Psalm 23:4-5).
Fed and rested, Elijah is summoned by the angel of the Lord to travel “forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8), living only on what had been supplied to him by God underneath the broom tree (1 Kings 19:7); just as Noah and his family withstood the rains of the flood for forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:12); just as the people of Israel spent forty years in the desert eating only the manna and quail provided by God (Deuteronomy 8:2-3); just as our Lord lived only by every word that comes from the mouth of God in his forty day sojourn in the desert (Luke 4:2-4). And why had God sustained them in life? The life of Elijah answers back, to meet him; for having followed the call of God up the mountain, God tells him, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11). Then Elijah witnessed the power of God’s creation, “a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces…” next an earthquake was felt followed by fire, “and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19:13); and it was there, in God’s silence that Elijah encountered him, and was assured that God still had a purpose for him to carry out (1 Kings 19:13-18).
Joining once again the motley seafaring crew of disciples amidst the storm we find something similar take place. The imagery here is beautiful and we would do well to take in as much as we can. Once again, as mentioned earlier, the disciples face the fury of nature just as Elijah had upon the mountain; only this time there is no need for the disciples to reach and traverse up the mountain in order to meet their Lord, for he comes down to them (Matt. 14:23 &25); he who is God forever, in this very moment and in human form, is for the disciples the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Notice also please that it is in the fourth watch of the night that our Lord comes to them (Matt. 14:25). The fourth watch of the night tells us that the event took place sometime between 3 and 6 AM. This tells us two things; first, the disciples had been fighting for their lives all night; second, our Lord comes to them with the dawning of a new day. Thus, here, the disciples are simultaneously historical and figural characters, symbolizing to us the human family, who for centuries had struggled in the darkness of separation from God until the true light appeared, the Son of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ (John 1:9), coming to set things aright between Creator and created. Yet the disciples at first are like the rest of the world, not recognizing the Lord of life (John 1:10), and it is not until he calls to them saying “take heart, it is I” (Matt 14:27); it is I, the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6); it is I AM WHO AM (Exodus 3:4), I have promised you time and again I would be with you and that will never change, thus “have no fear” (Matt 14:27).
My friends, this weekend our God wishes to speak to us once again of his love and fidelity, wishes to pull us close so that he might whisper to us that ‘he knows the plans he has for each and every single one of us, plans for our welfare and not for harm, to give us each a future with hope’ (Jeremiah 29:11), and to assure us that nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruler, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love” he has for us, a love which has been expressed most eloquently at the foot of the Tree of Life, the cross of salvation. Still we, like Peter, long for affirmation, long to hear the voice of the Shepherd call to us once more, and so we beg, ‘Lord, if it is you, if all this you say is true, bid me come to you on the water, call me to partake in this most glorious adventure that is life by your side’ (cf. Matt. 14:28). Did Peter really not know? Do we really not know? or do we all just desperately wish for that miraculous moment to follow Christ wherever he would go, to do things he never dreamed possible? Our Lord indeed bids him and us to follow him upon the waters, affirming that with God all things are possible, even to the extent of making mere mortals godlike (cf. Matt. 19:26). What is needed is faith, what is needed is conviction, what is needed is the gift of perseverance to proclaim in every word and deed that the man upon the cross is the very Son of God, he gave his life for me because he loves me, and I am his. This is the message the world needs to hear, for only it will in the end accomplish that which is impossible save for the power of God, making children of God those born from dust and ash.
Kind and merciful God, your patient attention knows no limits; your love perceives no boundaries; in looking upon us, your scrutinizing gaze indeed sees our failings, but considers only how good may spring therefrom for us and the whole world. Give us the grace this day to hear your voice calling to us in all things, speaking to us of the glorious end for which you have created us so that we might echo the call and summon all things living to the eternal happiness of the endless exchange of love within which you subsist, you who are Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Your servant in Christ,