Sign and Countersign
In December 1874, the steamship “Edwin,” enroute to Australia from a Washington State port, sprang a bad leak off Vancouver Island, and had to drop anchor. Some Hesquiat Indians on the nearby shore, seeing that the ship was in distress, jumped into their canoes, and braved high waves to come to the sailors’ aid. However, the crew feared that the natives were hostile, so they gestured them away. Although these Indians were not yet Christian, they had already learned of the Christian respect for the sign of the cross. To prove that they came in peace, they blessed themselves so that the sailors could see them. As a countersign, the crew also made the sign of the cross. Then they let the Hesquiats come aboard the foundering vessel.
Shortly after, rescuers and shipwrecked disembarked in the canoes and soon reached the safety of the beach. …Jesus hastened to reassure them: “Get hold of yourselves! It is I. Do not be afraid!” (Matthew, 14:27. Gospel of the day.)
-Father Robert F. McNamara
Q331: Why is St. Paul willing to be “condemned” and forfeit eternal life for the Jewish rejection of Jesus (Rom 9:1-5)?
Today’s three readings are all within the contest of some form of “turbulence,” and it is right there that the participants find God in a special way. In the case of St. Paul, he has suffered much from his fellow Jews – stoning, persecution, whippings, and imprisonment. Yet it is within this turbulence that Paul comes closest to Jesus, sharing in His suffering.
Paul’s suffering was also experienced at a deeper level. He has already given his inspired teachings about unity in the Body of Christ, and about believers becoming “one bread, one body.” So it was especially painful to him that his fellow Jews were rejecting Jesus, refusing to believe that he was the Risen Son of God. The Jews had so much to be thankful for: they were “chosen,” they had the covenants, the Torah, the Temple, the promises, the patriarchs and prophets. Yet now it all seemed to be lost.
Did he “write them off” as a lost cause, since they had rejected God’s Son? Not at all! It caused Paul’s heart “great grief and constant pain” to such an extent that out of love he was willing to suffer separation from Christ if it would result in the salvation of the Jews!
There is a great mystery here. Paul knew that Jesus suffered and died for all humanity – past, present and future. He knew, therefore, what redemptive suffering was all about, and that somehow if we offer our own sufferings to Christ then they, too, somehow become redemptive for others. This is why the power of our intercessory prayer must never be forgotten. Through the Church (the Body of Christ), all who suffer – whether Christian or not – are embraced by Christ who makes their suffering his own. As Pope John Paul II taught, in that unity of suffering with Christ, even the suffering of non-Christians is somehow contributing to the world’s redemption (Salvifici Doloris, 24).
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! We can deliberately enter into the divine plan by our actions, prayers, and sufferings (CCC#307). Common sense tells us that “praying for our enemies” must not be an idle or useless action, otherwise Jesus would not have asked us to do so. How much more ought we pray for those who reject Jesus, or for those who do not know him (CCC #839-843)? Intercession has been a powerful act of selfless compassion since the time of Abraham (CCC #2635), and recognizes no boundaries (CCC #2636).
Q488: How can we increase our Faith, so that we don’t “sink” into the sea like Peter in today’s gospel (Matthew 14:22-33)?
I recall the words of a Canadian friend (Rev. Gary Botha) who suggested many years ago that perhaps we have our eyes on the wrong person in this story. Our eyes need to be on Jesus, not on Peter.
In the immediately preceding gospel story, Jesus had miraculously fed 5,000 men – and perhaps several thousand more women and children – all from five loaves of bread and two fish; and everyone was content and satisfied. That in itself spoke volumes about “who” Jesus really was and is.
Now, only a few hours after that great miracle, the disciples – sent ahead by Jesus to cross the Sea – are caught on the Sea by an unexpected windstorm. It is perhaps 5:00 a.m., just before dawn, and the wind-driven waves are tossing the boat around like a cork. Then they spot Jesus walking towards them on top of the water. Interestingly, rather than being delighted it is this very sight that terrifies them, not the chaos of the waves. They doubt; they are thinking “ghost,” and they cry out in fear. Jesus immediately tells them, “do not fear.” Peter then responds with doubt, “IF it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus invites him, Peter tries, Peter loses his Jesus-focus, and Peter sinks. After his cry for help, Jesus saves him, and calms the chaos.
Peter’s story is the same for every Christian. We sometimes forget Who the main character in our life story is: Jesus, the Savior of the world. If we change our focus, and permit the chaos and evil around us to distract and influence us, then we will sink into the very chaos that we fear! On the other hand, if we keep our focus on the Source of our safety, our salvation, the One to whom we call out to save us, then the winds die down, and we are once again content in the Presence of the Lord. This is the way we increase or sustain our faith: by never doubting that the Presence of the Lord is with us every single moment of our lives!
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! When we cry out “Lord,” it expresses our recognition of the divine mystery of Jesus. It also shows our respect and trust in the One we approach for help and healing (CCC #448).
Be Not Afraid
The prophet Elijah flees from persecution to the mountain where God had given the covenant to Moses. There he experiences God’s presence, not in the spectacular signs of wind, fire and earthquake which Moses and the first Israelites had once encountered, but in the “sound of sheer silence.” Strengthen by the Lord he returns to speak God ‘word to his people. In the Gospel the disciples encounter a storm at sea, the traditional symbol of a chaotic world alienated from God. But Jesus comes to them and calls Peter to himself. Peter responds in faith, but begins to sink when he focuses on his own perilous position instead of on the Lord who calls him. Jesus rebukes Peter’s lack of faith but reaches out to lift him up. Living a Christian life in the midst of a chaotic world is sometimes like that. We often look for God’s presence in great miracles and visions which have sometimes revealed God’s presence. We are inclined to forget that God is present and more often found in the “sounds of silence”: quiet prayer, thoughtful prayer and meditation on the scriptures. Then we must respond like Elijah and Peter and go where the Lord calls, but keeping our eyes on him.
Lord, teach me to walk through this world with a firm faith in your presence. I believe that you are with me as you were with Elijah and Peter. Lord save me so that I may serve you.