Hagar the Horrible is a humorous comic strip whose title character is a Viking. In one strip Hagar is seen kneeling as he prays: “It’s not easy to believe in you God. We never see you. How come you never show yourself? How do we know you even exist?”
The next few drawings show a flower beginning to bloom, a volcano erupting, an eclipse of the sun, a comet in the sky, a tidal wave rushing over Hagar, lightning, a bush beginning to burn and a stone rolling away from a tomb. The final drawing has a wet Hagar getting up out of the mud in the darkness saying: “OK, OK. I give up! Every time I bring up this subject, all we get is interruptions.”
Like Hagar there are some times we might face doubt. It might be due to indifference or ignorance. It might be due to some tragedy we face. It might be due to being distracted by things of the world. The degrees of doubt may vary. Some might doubt God’s existence. Some might doubt the identity of his Son. Some might doubt that he works in and through his church. Some might doubt his goodness. Some might doubt his presence. Regardless of the manner or degree many people have had to face doubt in their lives.
Such is the case in the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy. The passage recalls the time when the disciples were in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee. The sea (“sea” by name but really a “lake”) is known for the storms that can suddenly arise, seemingly from out of nowhere. Quickly do the clouds roll in, thunder and lightning start and the driving winds raise waves. People sailing on the sea are tossed about in their boats.
A storm is beginning to brew during the forth watch of the night (between 3 and 6 a.m.) when Jesus walks on water from the shore to the boat. The disciples are incredulous. They think they are seeing a ghost. Knowing this Jesus calls out: “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.”
Still unsure Peter says: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says: “Come.” Peter then gets out of the boat and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. All is fine until he feels the wind start to swell. He becomes afraid and begins to sink crying out: “Lord, save me!” Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter saying: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
St. Matthew places this event well into Jesus’ public ministry. Peter has been with him up to this point. He has witnessed Jesus’ curing the sick, expelling demons and most recently the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. He has heard Jesus preach and has been moved by his words. He has heard Jesus teach and has been instructed in the Kingdom of God. His life is being transformed through the presence of Jesus. He has faith.
At the same time his faith is one that is in a constant process of development. There always seem to be more opportunities to grow. Such is the case as Jesus invites Peter to get out of the boat and to walk on the water toward him.
We, like Peter, are disciples of the Lord. We have experienced his love and its transformative effect. We too might have occasions where Jesus asks us “to get out of the boat” and to act on our faith. Situations in life may arise where we have to rely solely upon the Lord despite great difficulties and turbulence. Sometimes we might hear Jesus speak to us “Take courage, do not be afraid.” We might hear Jesus say to us as he did to Peter, “Come.” The invitation is an invitation to trust and to rely solely on the Lord. This is a call to deepen our faith.
In order to hear the Lord say “Take courage, do not be afraid!” or “Come,” we have to listen. The first reading for today’s liturgy from the First Book of Kings gives us an insight into how we encounter the Lord. Many times we might want the grand encounters of the divine like those grand events that have been handed down to us. We might long for something concrete or great. However the more usual encounter with the Lord is something more simple and quiet – but just as powerful.
Elijah is having a tough time in his prophetic ministry. He has fled to a cave in the countryside when the Lord appears to him saying: “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.” First a strong and heavy wind, one that was “rending the mountains and crushing rocks,” passed by. Second, there was an earthquake. Then there was a fire that passed by. Yet the Lord was in none of these. Finally, “After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in the cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.”
Elijah encountered the Lord in the tiny whispering sound. The Lord speaks to us in a similar fashion. Many times it is in the quiet of our hearts that we hear him speak. In order to hear him we have to listen for him. Prayer is one of the ways in which our faith develops and grows.
Many times we are tempted to rely on ourselves and what we see around us. While this is not always a bad thing, there is something more. God is the source of all that we have and are; he is the author of life. He is the one in whom we find life and hope, courage and strength.
As the wind on the sea grew, Peter was distracted. His focus was no longer on Jesus but on the wind. Sometimes we too can lose our focus. We might face storms in life that come up suddenly like a tragic death or accident, or the unexpected loss of a job, a broken relationship or a trust that has been violated. We might face the winds when making a life altering decision or dealing with situations which seem beyond us.
At these times we might be tempted to doubt. We might even get angry with the Lord.
Yet if we find some quiet in the midst of these storms we will hear the Lord say: “Take courage, do not be afraid!” And our faith will see us through these storms to calmer shores.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.