Tempestuous Seas — in Galilee and Life

User’s Guide to Sunday, June 20 — SCRIPTURES & ART: A God ‘who is Love’ is not a God indifferent to the fate of those who love him.

Eugène Delacroix, ‘Christ on the Sea of Galilee,’ 1854
Eugène Delacroix, ‘Christ on the Sea of Galilee,’ 1854 (photo: Public domain)

Sunday, June 20, is the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Mass Readings: Job 38:1, 8-11; Psalm 107:23-24, 25-26, 28-29, 30-31; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17; Mark 4:35-41.

Jesus’ miracles can be divided into two groups: healings and those involving nature. The former are more common — think back to last January in the first weeks of Ordinary Time when, after picking his first apostles, Jesus constantly heals: the demoniac in Capernaum, Peter’s mother-in-law, a leper. Jesus’ whole life is about healing: healing human beings from sin and its consequences. That is why the ultimate healing miracle is the Resurrection.

Jesus’ miracles involving nature also teach us something about who he is: the Lord of the World. In some ways, perhaps Jesus’ miracles affecting nature are even harder for modern people to appreciate. Our therapeutic age may actually like Jesus as healer, but our deist-tinged age somehow wants God’s “hands off” the world. 

God’s hands are, obviously, not off the world. If God’s hands were off the world, there would be no world. Why would there be no world? Because the world is not self-sustaining. The world is contingent. It did not and does not have to exist. Without God’s sustaining it, it would collapse back into what it was: nothing. 

That should console us. God is not the “great Absence.” God is not far away. God sustains the world I live in each and every day. Indeed, because human beings cannot create spirit, God is as close as the love of two people that they lend to him to create a life beneath a mother’s heart.

That should console us. God was providentially there from the first moment we ever existed. Not only was he there, he was responsible for it. Unfortunately, I think it may in fact bother us deeply. Man might prefer a world where God is a little removed, a little distant, a little out of the picture — at least until we need him. 

Consider this painting by 19th-century French artist Eugène Delacroix. The apostles in the boat are struggling to stay afloat. Four are valiantly but not especially successfully struggling with the mainsail. Another, in the aft, is bending precariously overboard to catch the rigging. Another is trying to keep up the foresail that is collapsing on him.

Delacroix was considered the father of French Romanticism, an international movement at the start of the 19th century. In contrast to the classicism that preceded it, Romanticism emphasized motion over straight and clean lines. The height of the waves and the angle of the relatively small tossed boat amid churning waters blending into stormy skies all emphasize not just movement but fragility and danger. The tipping of the boat doesn’t just reveal its passengers but reinforces the idea that they’re about to capsize. The green and blue — right in the middle of the color spectrum — reinforce the notion they’re “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

Jesus is the incongruity. He’s comfortably asleep. 

That must have taken nerves of steel. Some people get seasick from the slightest waves, much less a tempest. We can’t imagine he was especially dry either. 

Still, “I live down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High … will not fear the terror of the night” (Psalm 91:1, 5).

One of the apostles gives up their vain attempt to save themselves and instead reaches out to the Savior. He focuses his gaze straight on Jesus, not on other activities. 

Delacroix’s Jesus is not where Mark’s Jesus put him. The Evangelist (4:38) puts Jesus “in the stern,” i.e., the back of the boat. But Delacroix apparently wants our gaze — like the apostle’s — to be fixed on Jesus, putting him rather forward, paradoxically in closest contact with the threatening deep yet, in the words of Proverbs (3:24), “when you lie down, you will not be afraid; your sleep will be sweet.” The full-faced Jesus and apostle, facing outwards, draw us — the viewers — in.

Indeed, when Jesus is awoken and calms the storm, his question to the apostles is: “Why are you so afraid?” (Mark 4:40a). 

A God who has “the whole world in his hand,” a God “who is Love” (1 John 4:8), a God who is so close to us that “the hairs of your head are numbered” (Mark 10:30), is not a God indifferent to the fate of those who love him. So, when Jesus asks, “Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40b), it’s not just about their intellectual convictions but about their faith in God’s loving closeness. If “love has no room for fear” (1 John 4:18), do you really not believe I love you?

Jesus’ question posed in the middle of the tempest is both the same question God poses to Job “from the heart of the tempest” (Job 38:1) in the first reading and the question he asks of me as “I wander in a fragile bark over life’s tempestuous sea.”

Like most of the apostles in the boat, we deceive ourselves into believing we are in control. Some of us are even “control freaks.” What we often fail to realize is just how much that illusion is the work of the devil.

Early in Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, two atheists named Bezdomny and Berlioz sit in a Moscow park with a “Professor Woland” who is, in fact, the devil. Woland, who has just learned that the two do not believe in God, asks, “Who is in charge of human life?” Bezdomny, the poet, declares “man himself.” Woland humbly dissents, asking how a man can be in charge of himself when he cannot even guarantee his next day. (In Vladimir Bortko’s 2005 film adaptation, a tramway car passes in front of the three men at this point, the same tram under which Berlioz will fall and die five minutes later. Dethroned by his mortality, the “man in charge ends in a little wooden box in an oven” (given the prevalence of cremation in the Soviet Union). 

St. Ignatius gives us good advice: “Pray as if everything depends on you; act as if everything depends on God.” Because, in the end, God wants us to contribute our mite, but to recognize he’s in control. Because, as our lives show, in the end, our resources fail (as Job’s did); faith demands us to trust that his do not (as Job did).

They did not fail the apostle who turned to Jesus. So do we really want a world in which we keep God at a distance?