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Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 7, 2011 (19A)
By Fr. John Foley, S. J.
This Sunday most of us will notice mainly the story of Jesus walking on water, together with Peter sinking into it. But there is another very interesting spiritual dimension that I would like to suggest.
What do you think was going on in Jesus’ own heart and soul during these events?
We know that Jesus had emotions. We have seen them before, as when Lazarus died. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus had been hit hard by news of John the Baptist’s death. So he had taken a boat to a deserted place in order to grieve, quietly, by himself. But the crowd got there first and immediately pressed him into service when he arrived. Instead of the hushed time for grief he needed, Jesus’ heart had been moved by the needs of the suffering people before him. He spent hour after hour, healing and curing and feeding. Exhausting work.
Then comes the story for this Sunday. Jesus sends the crowd away at last. And notice a strange thing, usually ignored. He “made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side.” Why send them ahead? Why stay there alone? The answer is easy. He still needed to be alone to process John’s death, which he had not yet gotten to do.
He climbed up on a mountainside and took his own time to commune with his heavenly Father. The Gospel says that by now it was evening, and that Jesus prayed well into the night. A gusty wind came up. He could not have been comfortable.
I would love to know what his prayer was like. He had studied the scriptures since his youth, so maybe the story in our First Reading came to mind. There the prophet Elijah too was up on a mountain-side, and there too, a heavy wind came up. The Lord was not in the wind, we are told. Nor in the earthquake that followed. Nor in the fire that came next. The Lord God was in the “tiny whispering sound” that followed.*
Jesus on the mountain-side heard this voice too. But what did he feel?
Let’s take a shot at it. He opened his bruised trust to the Father, and lay this trust alongside his very personal loss. Perhaps Abba reassured him that even against the evidence all human beings have to rely on God, especially when it seems that tragedy has the upper hand. Jesus was divine, but divine consciousness and knowledge rested in the deepest realm of his soul, and needed this silent time to emerge.
In prayer, Jesus returned to his normal level of trust in God, but stronger now. In the same way that he “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), maybe he had to learn a higher level of trust through loss. Trust is not a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet re-emergence of God’s faithful love.
Then, at last, Jesus does walk on water. How must it feel to leave the solid ground and walk on slushy liquid? Perhaps this walking was symbolic of the trust he had come to in his night of prayer.
Maybe trust feels like walking on water.
______________________________*A better translation of these words, more suited to English, is the former way of rendering it: “a still, small voice”