Christ is with us amid the storms of life
(Readings: Job 3:1, 8-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17; Mark 4:35-41)
Introduction to Mass
In this Sunday's gospel Christ reproaches the disciples for their lack of faith and their fear in the middle of a sea-storm. He expected them to know that they would be quite safe as long as they depended on him. Circumstances often expose the low level of our own faith and trust in God and so we begin Mass today by asking his forgiveness for the times when we've not trusted deeply enough in him.
This incident on lake of Galilee stretches the modern imagination, there's no doubt about that, but like all the miracle stories in the gospels, the important thing isn't the physical event itself, but the spiritual meaning behind the event.
When Jesus went around preaching and calling people to follow him, the first thing he asked for was repentance - a change of attitude.
The second thing he asked for was faith, and in fact Christ never stopped talking about how important it was not to be frightened or worried but to have faith instead. He was constantly exasperated by the lack of faith that he came up against in the towns and villages he went through. You might remember the time he couldn't work any miracles at all because of the people's lack of faith.
And of course the disciples came in for the same criticism: "Why are you so frightened?" he says in this Sunday's gospel story. "How is it that you have no faith?"
It's not an oversimplification, I don't think, to say that fear - fear of anything - and lack of faith always go together. Whenever we're frightened it's always a sign that we're relying on ourselves, on our own strength and our own abilities, instead of relying on God.
Of course, everyone has some kind of fear: it's a natural or instinctive reflex when we sense danger in some way, and you could say it's part of our unredeemed condition. Perhaps, "before the Fall", there was no cause for fear and therefore no reflex of fear.
But it's true in any case that the more we turn away from the reserves of our own talents, and open ourselves to God's power, through praying to him and resolving to make an effort to live by the standards of the gospel, the more we're given the support of God's grace. Contact with God gradually re-orders our priorities, removes anxieties and drives out any fears we have. Or at least it makes us able to cope with them and put them in their place.
Trusting in God, instead of in our own resources, is what Jesus meant when he constantly told people to have faith.
Still, having said that, it would be a mistake to see this Sunday's gospel story as implying that faith in Christ brings a sort of permanent feeling of calm or inner peace, and gets rid of all our problems.
If we let ourselves be drawn close to Christ, and if our faith in him grows, our attitudes and our behaviour will become like his. But that doesn't mean that we get to avoid trouble or storms or conflict. In fact it's more likely that we'll sail straight into it.
When we look at the lives of so many of the saints - all those men and women who tried to live out the gospel to the letter - we often find that their efforts weren't rewarded at the time by any great feelings of serenity or inner peace. Often their relationships, their practical work, the outward circumstances of their lives were crowded with worries and problems.
In many instances it was only after they were dead, or at the end of their lives, that they were recognised to be great examples of holiness and Christian commitment. At the time they were carrying out what they felt was their vocation from God, people thought that they were either annoying eccentrics, or hypocrites trying to draw attention to themselves.
So the consequences of having faith in Christ for a lot of these men and women wasn't any great inner calm or tranquillity, it was more strife and more turbulence. But like with the apostles, it wasn't important how they felt. The important thing was that they had Christ with them, in spite of the storms crashing around their heads. God didn't extricate them from difficulties; he imparted strength and perseverance to struggle through the difficulties.
The lives of many of the saints also teach us that people who become more and more absorbed in the mystery of God's life begin to exchange worldly values and goals for the values and goals of the gospel. As the "normal" self-serving aspirations loosen their grip on them they often find themselves being criticised for not being realistic, not being practical. People with a worldly mentality thinks that religion is alright - but only in moderation!
But the truth is, of course, that the gospel isn't "realistic" by worldly standards. How realistic is the gospel story we listened to? How realistic was Jesus when he told people they had to love their enemies, give away their coat if they were asked for their shirt, not worry about what food they had to eat or clothes they had to wear?
Judged by our limited, cynical, human standards - what St. Paul calls the standards of the flesh - the gospel isn't realistic at all. But if we're serious about following Christ it means we change our notions of what's real and what's unreal.
In God, it's the things that usually motivate us - money, fulfilling our ambitions, being thought well of, getting one over on someone we don't like - that become unreal and lose their force, and its all the qualities that don't serve our self-interest that come to dominate.
"For anyone who is in Christ," Paul says, "there is a new creation. The old creation has gone, and the new one is here." Let's pray in the Mass today that, as we try to live our life of faith, we gradually become more of a new creation. And let's also pray that when various storms and difficulties afflict us - as they inevitably will - we'll always be conscious of Christ's presence, bearing us up and carrying us through.