Get yourself primed for Mass this weekend by spending a few minutes on the Mass readings. The first reading is 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; the second reading is Romans 9:1-5; and the Gospel is Matthew 14:22-33. Look them up in your own Bible, or find the full text of the readings here on the USCCB website.
Our first reading and the Gospel present two amazing images that can give us some insight on prayer.
The Chapter that precedes our first reading, 1 Kings, 18 tells the story of a dramatic showdown between Elijah and hundreds of the prophets of Baal. Elijah wins and winds up killing these prophets which causes the Queen, Jezebel, to call for his head. Elijah flees, despairing for his life, and is led on a journey forty days & nights to Horeb (this is the same mountain where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments) essentially waiting on God. It is here that Elijah waits and has three dramatic experience: a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire. He doesn’t find God in any of these, but once they’ve passed him by, a still, small voice that appears… and it is here that Elijah encounters the Lord.
The Gospel continues the story after the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus sends the Apostles away in a boat before dismissing the crowd, and taking some prayer time of his own on the mountain. While he’s praying the disciples find their boat being pushed in the wrong direction by heavy winds, and they are unable to make land. Jesus walks across the water to them, and they are understandably terrified.
Jesus’ words to them are the same message He gives to us in such moments (when we are terrified and/or things seem totally out of control around us): Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid (Mt 14:27). Following this, we have Peter asking if he, too, can walk on the water – and he does, so long as he’s got his eyes on Jesus – but he gets distracted by the storm and the sea, and begins to sink. Jesus saves Peter and calms the storm (to the great amazement of all in the boat).
These two dramatic scenes have a particular lesson for all of us. God’s appearance in both stories is both quiet and gentle in the midst of circumstances that are neither quiet nor gentle. The idea of Jesus calmly walking across the sea in the middle of a squall is a lot like the still, quiet voice Elijah experiences. These moments stand in stark contrast to the ways we often expect God to break into our lives… the ways God had spoken to some people in the past. Scripture recounts stories like the call of Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3), Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel (Luke 1), or Saul/Paul being blinded on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), which might lead one to think that this is the normal way God deals with human beings. It’s fair to say that God does deal with some of us in this way – not only in scripture, but through stories some people share today – but this isn’t the ordinary way God comes to us. When God comes, He comes in his own way, and more often than not it’s going to be quiet and gentle, in much the same way as He was born into this world not with trumpets and fanfare befitting a King… but as an infant in the most humble of surroundings.
All of this raises two simple questions:
- Why does God keep Himself so hidden?
- What are we supposed to do about it?
To the first question – why – the answer is simple. It’s all about love. If God always appeared or spoke to us in dramatic, indisputable fashion, we’d have no choice but to believe He was there. Love is something that by definition has to be free. You can’t force someone to love you or it ceases to be love at all (even fairy tales respect this – Aladdin can’t use one of his wishes to make the princess love him.) The God who is love and who thirsts for us to love Him in return comes to us in hidden, quiet, and unexpected ways.
The answer to the second question is that we need to learn to pay attention to Him, to listen for that gentle, still voice. Although it’s certainly not beyond His ability, we can’t wait on God to shout to get our attention… it is our task to turn to Him, to open our hearts, and to listen.
Remember that Elijah let the noise of life pass Him by, and came to hear God, and that the Apostles discovered Christ as the calm in the midst of the storm. It is my prayer that we all may learn to do the same.
Have a great Sunday!