Spirituality of the Readings
Normally the Gospel for last week tells news of John the Baptist’s death, which hit Jesus hard. He took a boat to a deserted place in order to grieve, quietly, by himself.
The crowd had watched him go. But they tracked him down and got to that place on foot, before him! When he arrived, their many needs pressed him into service immediately. So, instead of the hushed time for grief that he needed, Jesus’ heart was moved by the suffering people that faced him. He spent hour after hour, healing and curing—and feeding the five thousand.
This story was omitted last week because the Church, for a number of reasons, mostly numerical, celebrated instead the feast of the Transfiguration. Fine, but this week’s Gospel is much clearer if you know how it follows the previous one, so I have filled in the missing part of the story above!
Which brings us to this Sunday. In the Gospel, Jesus at last sends the crowd away. And notice a strange thing, usually ignored. After feeding the five thousand, he “made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side.” But why send them ahead? Why should he stay there alone? The probable answer is easy. Among other things, he needed to be by himself to process John’s death, which had moved him so much.
So he climbed up on a mountainside and took plenty of time to commune with his heavenly Father. By now it was evening, and he prayed well into the night. A gusty wind came up. He could not have been comfortable. Neither could the disciples, who were trying to hold their boat on course in the wind.
We would love to know the character of Jesus’ prayer. He had studied scriptures since his youth, so maybe the story of Elijah in our First Reading had come to mind. There, the prophet also was on a mountain-side, and there too, a heavy wind came up. We are told that the Lord was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake that followed, nor in the fire that came next. The Lord God was in the “still, small voice” that came last.*
Fast forward. Jesus surely also heard such a voice. Even though his trust was bruised by John’s death, maybe he was letting his Abba refresh it. He let his very personal loss be touched, even after caring for so many poor ones.
What do we learn? All human beings have to rely on God, especially when it seems that tragedy has the upper hand. Maybe Jesus, even Jesus, was learning that divine love stays in the deepest realm of the soul, and needs a quiet time to emerge. Could this be an example of how he “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8)? Did he now possess again what the rest of us humans have to learn, that trust is not a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love.
Now Jesus walked on water to the disciples, who were still at sea. How must it have felt to leave solid ground and walk on mere liquid? Perhaps this walking is symbolic of the kind of trust that had been with him throughout his life.
It was such a symbol for Peter.
* I love this older translation of the words, with more symbolism in English, rather than the present way of rendering it, “A tiny whispering sound,” which sacrifices metaphor for accuracy.
John Foley, SJ
Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
**From Saint Louis University