Saturday, March 12, 2011

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:9-14 / Mark 6:47-56

He cometh to them walking upon the sea: and He would have passed by them.

Jesus' behavior on the way to Genesareth strikes us as more than a bit odd. He has only recently fed the multitude with the miraculous multiplication of bread, and now intends to cross the sea. However, while he sends his disciples ahead by boat, he remains behind. His disciples, however, have a rough time at it, for the wind was against them, and what might have been a calm and relaxing voyage by night has become hard labor. Here is where the puzzle comes along. Jesus sees the disciples and their trouble, and he himself begins to cross the sea. He might imagine that he does so to go to his disciples and comfort them. However, as Mark tells us, he seems to have set out to cross the sea ahead of them, to leave them in their troubles, for He would have passed by them save that they saw Him walking upon the sea. Of course, Jesus stops in his course, and without delay, immediately as the Gospel tells us, Jesus spoke to them, and said to them: Have a good heart, it is I, fear ye not. Indeed, he enters their boat, and in his presence the wind ceased. Even so, we might rightly wonder why this coming to their aid was an afterthought, and not the first thing on his mind.

The Gospel gives us some clues as to our confusion, which is itself a confusion shared by the disciples. On seeing Jesus walking upon the sea, the disciples are not heartened, nor even annoyed that Jesus should pass them by. Instead, they are alarmed — But they, seeing Him walking upon the sea, thought it was an apparition, and they cried out. For they all saw Him, and were troubled. Even after Jesus' words of comfort, even when he has calmed the winds and entered to boat to be clearly and undeniably with them, their response is not relief, or thanksgiving, or even a pained yearning to know why their Lord would have meant to pass them by. They simply remain in a more fundamental confusion, indeed even worse than before — And they were far more astonished within themselves. Why? According to Mark, the reason is the disciples failure to have grown in a richer embrace of who the Lord is and what he was about, despite what they had experienced in his presence. As the Gospel says, they understood not concerning the loaves: for their heart was blinded.

In other words, the disciples has seen and experienced the abundance of God, his generous care and concern for the hungry crowds. They had witnessed that, in the presence of the real need of the multitude, Jesus had compassion on them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd. They had heard the words he had spoken to teach, and when it had become evening, they had seen five thousand fed by his hand from five loaves and two fish. More than this, they had seen him heal the sick and case out unclean spirits, and they had heard his life-giving and salutary teaching. Yet, in spite of all of this, neither the memory of what he had done for them nor even his unmistakable presence in their midst was of any comfort to them.

We, too, can harden our hearts, and even while crying out to God for help when we row against the winds of the world, still find ourselves, astonished, amazed, confused, and even fearful not by God's absence, but by his presence to us. We do so because, as God teaches us through the prophet Isaiah, we have become too occupied with our own pursuits, our own measures for how God ought to act. We imagine we know what the world's troubles are, and what are our own, and we find God's response to them confusing at best.

Our solution, the solution God provides through the prophet, is simple, and the one for which we have entered into Lent. We are to set aside our projects, our pretensions to self-sufficiency. We are to open our hearts to the real needs of those around us, pouring out our souls to the hungry and satisfying the afflicted. We are to return to old patterns of prayer, good intentions for virtuous living, so that the places that have been desolate for ages shall be built in us. A Lent well observed, that is, will call us to a sabbath rest from our self-assertions, and restore to us the perspective from which God's acts are neither worrisome nor troubling. If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thine own will in my holy day, and call the sabbath delightful and he holy of the Lord glorious, and glorify Him, while thou dost not thine own ways, and thine own will is not found, to speak a word: then shalt thou be delighted in the Lord.

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