Sunday of Ordinary Time
Kings 19:9-13; Matthew 14:22-33
The other night I dreamed about my mother,
who died seven years ago. In life she
was a bitter woman, but in the dream she was laughing and happy, and I woke up
with a strong sense of her happiness. Of
A few days later I was talking to a friend
about the dream and saying how much I wished it were true: that Mom really was happy and that she really
had come to me. And my friend turned,
looked at me, and asked: well, do you
believe in God or not?
The Lord doesn’t come to us in a wind, and
he doesn’t come to us in an earthquake, and he doesn’t come to us in a
fire. He comes to us in a still, small
voice, and all we have to do is listen.
The Lord is always walking towards us, on
the water—and we are always jumping out of the boat, in our joy—and when we
feel how hard the wind is blowing, we always sink. And the wind is the wind of doubt, the wind
is the wind that blows from the culture we live in, a culture that is always
ridiculing religion, is always reducing the mystery, through a small and petty rationalism. And that doubt is in us, too. We are the petty rationalists ourselves.
There’s an approach to the Bible we often
take, and it’s not entirely bad--it’s the approach I usually take--but reading Father
James Martin’s new book, Jesus: A
Pilgrimage, I realized for the first time what its dangers really are, if
we take it too far. It’s the approach
that some scholars have called “the Nice Thought” approach. Jesus didn’t really multiply the fishes and
loaves; he just inspired the people to share the food they’d brought. Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead; the
people just lived new lives in memory of him.
In other words, whenever we come to a miracle in the Bible, we explain
it away, we turn it into metaphor, until finally the scriptures are drained of
all their power and meaning entirely.
It’s not that we have to prove all the
miracles actually happened in some obvious way.
That’s a reduction from the other side, a reduction to the merely
physical, as if God were just a magician who can only get our attention through
special effects. Sure, he can. He can do anything. But why would he stoop so low—and especially
when it never works? The people in the
gospels witness all these astonishing things, they see all these miracles, and
in the end they kill Jesus anyway. They
hang him on a cross.
As Catholics, of course, we know that
we’re not supposed to read the Bible literally.
This is the teaching of the Church, as Father Robert Barron explains in
a really terrific essay that appeared in the Catholic Sentinel a few weeks ago:
God did not dictate the Scriptures word
for word [Barron says];
rather, God spoke subtly and indirectly, precisely through human agents who
employed distinctive literary techniques and who were conditioned by the
cultures in which they found themselves.
the Bible is the Word of God, but filtered through human language and
reflecting human limitations.
says] one of the most basic moves in
Scriptural exegesis is the determination of the genre in which a given Biblical
author was operating. Are we dealing with
a song, a history, a tall tale?
Therefore, to ask, ‘Do you take the Bible literally’ is about as helpful
as asking, ‘Do you take the library literally’?
word “genre” here just means kind or form, and the idea is simply that form
determines the questions we ask. We
don’t watch Lord of the Rings the
same way we watch Apollo 13, or The Simpsons the same way we watch Restaurant Impossible.
A “gospel” is a form of its own, not the
news, but the “good news,” shaped, faith-filled history, based on the
eye-witness accounts of a certain people in a certain time and place and then carefully,
artfully arranged to convey not facts, finally, but faith, faith in an ever-living
God. But that’s exactly the point, the
most important point of all. The point
isn’t to reduce the idea of miracle, but to expand it. The point isn’t to drain the Bible of its
power but to show again and again that the power is present in our time, too,
in every moment, not just long ago and far away but here and now and
In our beloved Lord Jesus the difference
between matter and spirit and subject and object has been forever transcended. What’s miraculous isn’t just the walking on
water but the water itself, is the lake, the Sea of Galilee, which Barb and I
have seen, a beautiful lake, 13 miles long and 8 miles wide, with the sun rising
over it in the mornings, and every lake, Yellowstone Lake and Lake Pend Oreille
and even Cronemiller Lake, the pond in the woods by our house, because God is
everywhere, lovely in 10,000 places, in every kind of experience and every form
of expression, from dreams to heart attacks, from “I love you” to “pass the
salt.” The miracle is life itself, is
the ordinary, not just the exceptional, is nature and our bodies and all that
happens to us day to day.
This is why we come to mass, to offer up
these moments, to consecrate them and so become more aware of them, to give
thanks for them.
Jesus didn’t just live, he died, and he
didn’t just die, he rose, and he didn’t just rise, he ascended, and then he
sent the spirit, the Holy Spirit, which is flowing through the universe and has
always been flowing through the universe, from the beginning of time.
Everything is miraculous.
Barb and I were driving through the fields
and hills west of Philomath a few weeks ago, taking our dogs to the kennel, and
I looked out at the trees and the new cut hay, at the farms as we passed them, and
for a while I felt an unusual peace, a sense of happiness and blessedness. It lasted about an hour, this feeling, as we
drove on to the coast, deeper than usual, quiet but intense. I can’t put it into words. I didn’t even tell Barb about it. We were just talking about ordinary things,
listening to music. But for a while, an hour
or more, I had this quiet sense of joy, of belonging, as if some kind of energy
was flowing into me from somewhere else, as if I were being told, it’s OK, it’s
OK, everything is OK.
But not as if. An energy was flowing through me.
Do I believe in God or not?
Sure, this feeling could have been just a nice
feeling. Sure, these thoughts could have
been just nice thoughts--just the product of brain chemistry—just the result of
a good mood. But that’s not what we’re
called to believe. That’s not what the
scriptures are calling us to today.
Thoughts like this are not our
thoughts, they are the still, small voice, they are Jesus coming towards us, on
the water. Sure, we’ll jump out and
sink, again and again. We’re all like
Peter. These moments pass and we doubt
them and forget them. We’re embarrassed
to talk about them. We return to our
drowning, in our own small problems and issues.
But that’s OK, too. Jesus reaches
down and pulls Peter out of the water, he always does, again and again, and we
just have to accept that about ourselves, our limitations, and believe that
about Jesus, his forgiveness and persistence.
And besides, the water is fine, even as we
sink. Even in our drowning, the Lord is
with us. The water is clear and sweet
and the light is shining through it.