19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
The First Reading and the Gospel today both describe a memorable experience of God following violent manifestations of nature.
The First Reading, 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13, describes the experience of the prophet Elijah when, following his harassment at the hands of Queen Jezebel, he has made a long journey to 'Horeb, the mount of God'. 'Horeb' is an alternative name for Sinai, the place where, generations before, the Israelites had had an experience of God foundational for their existence as a people. On that occasion, while Moses communed with God up on the mountain, the people remained below, witnessing from afar a terrifying manifestation of the divine presence in thunder and lightning, thick cloud and trumpet blast (Exodus 19).
SOUND OF SILENCE
In Elijah’s case, things go differently. As before, there is a mighty wind, an earthquake, and 'fire' (lightning). But the Lord is not 'in' any of these. Instead, after the fire comes 'a sound of sheer silence' (so NSRV; the Hebrew original reads literally: 'a voice of thin silence'). Covering his face (lest he look upon the Lord and die), Elijah goes out to the entrance of the cave, where he is addressed by God and given a new mission.
This is one of the great moments of revelation in the Old Testament. What lifts Elijah out of his depression and renews his vocation is a totally new sense of God. The Lord once manifest in terrifying upheavals of nature is now known in something as subtle and gentle as 'sheer silence,' a silence that somehow has a 'voice'. The Judaeo-Christian mystical tradition has its foundation here.
The Gospel, Matt 14:22-33, follows on directly from the miraculous provision of food for the multitude, as described in last week’s Gospel. Jesus sends his disciples off to cross the lake by boat while he disperses the crowd and goes up the mountain alone to pray. The disciples struggling to make headway in a boat out on the lake are symbolic of the later Church in a situation in which it so often finds itself. In biblical thought wind and water out of control are stock images of chaos and destruction. The scene of the disciples battling a head-wind and heavy seas while Jesus remains apart on the mountain evokes a sense of the Church struggling against forces that threaten to engulf it, keenly sensing all the while the physical absence of its Lord.
'IT IS I'
Eventually, of course, Jesus joins the disciples, walking on the sea – in biblical imagery a prerogative of God (Ps 77:19; Job 9:8; Isa 43:16). The phrase with which he identifies himself, “It is I”, evokes the self-identification of God to Moses at the Burning Bush (Exod 3:13-15). The presence of Jesus ('Emmanuel' [Matt 1:23 and 28:20]) is at one and the same time the saving presence of God.
What prompts Peter’s bid to come to Jesus across the sea? Love, boldness, bravado? Perhaps all three – but also a measure of faith. Faith in Jesus enables Peter, for a time at least, to tread underfoot the watery forces of destruction. But his faith, like that of all disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, is prone to doubt.
Jesus’ gentle word of remonstrance, after he has rescued Peter, 'O you of little faith, why did you doubt?', addresses all members of the Church. Peter 'models' the mixture of boldness and fear, strength and weakness, characteristic of us all. We can make our own his cry for rescue ('Lord, save me') and feel as he felt the Lord’s strong hand of rescue reaching out to raise us from the deep.
Members of the Church, especially perhaps at the present time, can take great comfort from this scene. The Gospel recognises that there will be times of stress and danger when faith will be sorely tested and sometimes fail. But this does not mean that 'Emmanuel' is not with us, swift and sure to rescue, when, like Peter, we cry 'Lord, save us'.
As Jesus and Peter get into the boat, the wind subsides and the disciples 'worship' him saying, 'Truly, you are the Son of God'? Like Elijah at Horeb, they have come to a new awareness of God’s saving presence among them. The Gospel suggests that such new awareness can be the outcome of crises in which the Church experiences weakness, failure, and faltering of faith.
The Second Reading, Rom 9:1-5, has no connection with all this but gives important testimony to Paul’s sense of the ancient and abiding privileges of the Jewish people. The last sentence may be one of the rare places in the New Testament when Jesus is described as 'God' (see John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Titus 2:13). More, likely, however, Paul is concluding the list with a traditional doxology.
Fr Brendan Byrne SJ