A Power that Breaks Every Obstacle
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”
The Gospel lesson for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany comes from St. Matthew, who describes the journey our Lord took in a boat to get across the Sea of Galilee. It more than likely was a trip of convenience to save our Lord and His disciples the trouble of walking around the Sea of Galilee to the other side.
The Sea of Galilee is about 60 miles north of Jerusalem in a valley along the Jordan river, which flows through it from south to north. It naturally separates Galilee in the modern state of Israel from the Golan Heights in western Syria. In our Lord's day, all this region was called Palestine by the Romans and was divided into smaller geographical regions, all governed by local tetrarchs, who were under authority of the the Roman emperor – occupied territory as our old history books taught us. The Sea of Galilee is approximately 13 miles long and 8 miles wide; a rather large body of water for that arid part of the world. It is fed by underground springs and of course the Jordan river. It is the lowest freshwater lake in the world. Only the Dead Sea is lower in elevation. It is approximately 33 miles around the Sea of Galilee – quite a trek for our Lord and his disciples after an exhausting day of ministering to the crowds of people. That's like walking from here to Electra! However, keep in mind that our Lord and his disciples walked everywhere they went, so they were used to such distances and wouldn't have given it a second thought. We are very much spoiled to the conveniences of our modern age.
We are told that Jesus was exhausted from the labors of the day and got into the boat to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee; to retreat from the throngs of people as it were. It was evening when they departed and once underway, our Lord quickly falls asleep. Because of the surrounding geography and location of the Sea of Galilee, it has always been known for the sudden storms that can brew up at any time under the unstable conditions of the region. Mathew uses his customary “behold” to indicate how unexpected this particular storm was. He records that a great storm arose on the sea – so violent that the boat was swamped by the waves of the tempestuous waters. Despite this, our Lord remained asleep even as the waves washed over the boat. This tells us of the humanity of our Lord; that His exhaustion was extreme – well that stands to reason when dealing with constant throngs of chaotic, hysterical people all day long as He and the disciples had just dealt with that day. They were, as my grandfather used to say, “plumb wore out.”
Keep in mind that the disciples were experienced fishermen and knew a thing or two about being on rough waters in a storm. They no doubt had experienced this many times in their life's work. Yet even some of them were terrified, as they thought the boat would surely capsize and they would all be drowned. So they went to Jesus and woke Him up. You can almost imagine them grabbing Him by the arms in despair and shaking Him to rouse Him. “Save us Lord, we are perishing!” Those words themselves speak volumes, but that is a theological discussion for another day.
Keeping with today's topic, the terrified shouts of the disciples finally awaken our Lord. He rebukes them for being cowards and having little faith. Did they really suppose that God would allow His Son, the Word Made Flesh to drown in the lake with His disciples and that would be the end of it all? To the disciples' credit though, they did not yet have the knowledge and insight that our Lord had, for at this point, they had not been enlightened to understand that their rabbi was in fact God Incarnate, and nothing like that would dare happen to them.
Jesus rose and stood up in the tossing boat. He rebuked the wind and the unruly sea, commanding their behavior to cease. Immediately a great calm happened. It is hard for us to wrap our minds around this because it does not process with our understanding of how we think the world and nature works. But that's just it. Jesus is not exclusively of this world. He is both God and man and therefore inclusive of both realms; and most especially a realm that we as mortals cannot comprehend. That dimension is what we have to look forward to with faith, patience, and contemplation. Being mere mortals, the disciples marveled at our Lord's divine power, as would any of us had we been there. No one but God could tame the untamable power of the sea and the wind. (Remember how God answered Job out of the whirlwind concerning the sea?) Jesus calmed the fury of the sea with a simple word. Jesus is how God comes to us in a form that we can understand, even with all of His power and awe included in His humanity.
The disciples whispered among themselves (most likely after Jesus returned to His interrupted sleep), “What kind of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They were trying to comprehend, to process what they had just witnessed but they could not. They had no explanation for it. They all knew in their hearts at that point that Jesus was God's chosen instrument, but they were stunned by such a display of power.
In closing, I would like to include some thoughts from the Dom Guéranger, Abbot of Solesmes in France from the 19th century. He writes, “Let us adore the power of our Emmanuel, who is come to calm the tempest, which threatened the human race with death. In the midst of their danger, the successive generations of men, had cried out, “Lord! Save us; we perish.” When the fullness of time had come, he awoke from his rest; he had but to command, and the power of our enemies was destroyed. The malice of the devils, the darkness of idolatry, the corruption of paganism - all yielded. They had said, when in their misery and blindness: "Who is this Jesus, whom no power can resist?" - and then, they embraced his Law. This power of Jesus to break down every obstacle - and that, too, at the very time when men were disquieted at his apparent slumbering - has often shown itself in the past ages of the Church. How many times has He not chosen that period for saving the world, which seemed the least likely for rescue! The same happens in the life of each one among us. Oftentimes, we are tossed to and fro by violent temptations; it would seem as though the billows must sink us; and yet our will is firmly anchored to our God! And what is all this, if not Jesus sleeping in the heaving bark - nay, protecting us by this his sleeping? And if our cry for help at length awaken him, it is only to proclaim his own and our victory; for he has already conquered, and we have conquered in Him.”
Matthew's perspective of this miracle really emphasizes the simple humanity and earthiness of the disciples and how far distant they were compared to the majesty and power of the Word made Incarnate – Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. It was literally awe inspiring to those fortunate disciples who witnessed this event. At the same time, Matthew reminds us of the second nature of Christ – that of His fully human nature, his fleshly being, given to Him by his Blessed Mother, the Theotokos. Jesus was exhausted and needed a proper rest as my English mother-in-law says. He was weary and most likely looked forward to that recuperating snooze on board the boat. Jesus knew that nothing could happen to Him and was not bothered by a storm at sea – even a violent one, as Matthew describes. It's a great lesson for us – that Faith through God's Grace saves us from the tempestuous storms of life. Asking God to save us from our disbelief, our weaknesses, and our sins is what we must do to experience God's awesome power – the power to calm the storms in our lives. This is what Jesus offers. This is what we can hope to expect if we take Him up on His offer. God can and will save us if we have Faith and follow His commandments through Jesus Christ, our Lord, the ever-Triune God, now and throughout all ages of ages.