Sunday the Nineteeth

Antiphon: “Lord, be true to Your covenant, forget not the life of Your poor ones for ever. Rise up, O God, and defend Your cause; do not ignore the shouts of Your enemies (Psalm 73:20, 19, 22, 23).”

Gospel excerpt: “Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost (φάντασμα [phantasma]),” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once [Jesus] spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt? (Matthew 14:24-31)”

     Scholars tell us that the "fourth watch of the night" is the period of time between 3 and 6 in the morning. This is a time of paradox. Around 3am, intense darkness engulfs all reality. On the Sea of Galilee, darkness is so intense that when you stretch out your arm, you cannot see your fingertips. Without light, it is easy to loose your bearings and wander off course. The heart pounds faster. Breathing quickens as fear of being lost takes hold of life. Add an unexpected storm that tosses a 30-foot fishing boat mercilessly at the whim of wind and waves and you have a recipe for disaster.

     Yet as time drifts closer to the 6am hour, the other pole of the paradox dawns. Not only does light gradually transform darkness, it does so with colors that are rarely seen in the brightness of noonday sun. Color, born of light and water, take hold of life where there was once fear. The captivating prism of light transforms fear to calm and brings a touch of ‘the wow’ to both body and soul. Water, darkness and light all combine to signal hope: the gift of a new day with all of its surprises and blessings.
     For a group of first-century Galilean fishermen, a particular day dawned like no other. In the midst of dealing with the wind and sea (traditional images of chaos in the Old Testament over which God alone has power to cause order [cosmos]), the unexpected sight of Jesus triggered fear. The Evangelist records the sight as a φάντασμα (phantasma) which is translated in the New American Bible as “ghost.” In the ancient world, people recognized that a phantasma could be real or imaginative. However real or imaginative, the perceiver or the viewer had no control over the sight. This is an important dimension of the ancient meaning of phantasma as it contributes to the human experience of fear. When we are not in control of life, we often sense that as a threat and instinctively the flight/fight mechanism engages with the hope of survival. Later in the Christian era, phantasma's Greek root is part of a larger group of words that eventually means a “showing of God” - an epiphany or a theophany.
     All of this - the “fourth watch of the night,” the paradox of time, the metaphor of water and wind for chaos and antiquity's meaning of phantasma - gives us much to ponder this Sunday as God’s Word is proclaimed. While the western mind may want to figure out and perhaps dismiss "walking on water" because it seems so disconnected from our lives, caution is strongly advised and needed. None of us can dismiss the reality of darkness in our lives. We wish we would not have to experience it yet maturity demands that each acknowledges times of aimlessness, confusion, and perhaps even despair that cast gradually intensifying darkness on and in our lives. The same fear that gripped the fishermen in the boat grips us and we look for a way out to experience perhaps just a glimmer, if not the rich colors of life. Faith memories instinctively move us to call out “God, come to my assistance!” as Elijah and the fishermen did. The difficulty is that we often block the God-showing in our lives and thereby run the risk of Jesus passing us by. We call out for help - AND - at the same time we want the showing of God and Divine Help on our terms, not on the Lord's terms. It is the ever-present struggle in our lives to be in control, to hold not only the remote-control but the batteries as well.
     Faith in the Person Jesus always requires letting go of the false self. The paradox is that when we put our “hand in the hand of the Man from Galilee” life’s darkness is transformed bit by bit into dazzling colors enabling us to see, hear, speak and live as Galilee's famous Carpenter Who managed to teach fishermen a thing or two about life ... as He does so today for us.

Opening Prayer:
Almighty and ever-living God,
Your Spirit made us Your children
confident to call You Father.
Increase Your Spirit with us
and bring us to our promised inheritance.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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