Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 9)

When reflecting on the readings for this week’s liturgy the words of Jesus from another Gospel passage came to mind: “Seek and you shall find.”

As human beings, we all have a desire for God in the depths of our being. Sometimes this is recognized and the person seeks him. Other times it might be a latent desire, unnamed but present nonetheless.

In this case there may be distractions, obligations or responsibilities that might hide the desire yet something inside ourselves longs for an encounter, a relationship. God is always there reaching out and calling us to himself, and he patiently awaits our reply.

The first reading and Gospel passages for this Sunday’s Mass give us insight into this relationship and encounter with God. At the heart of both is another saying of Jesus: “Do not be afraid.” God is loving and forgiving. He is trustworthy and reliable. We know he is powerful and strong, for all things were created by him, yet he is approachable and welcoming. He invites us to himself as a loving parent to a child, as a friend to a friend, as a brother to a brother.

The two readings recall two significant divine encounters. The first takes place on Mount Horeb, the second on the Sea of Galilee.

Elijah is on Mount Horeb. How did he get there? Why is he there? Where is he in life? Well, if we read this passage in the biblical context, we get some insights into his life at this point. He is fed up. In fact, he’s told God that he wishes he were dead.

To say he was in a tough situation would be putting it mildly. He had just confronted the prophets of Baal, a pagan god, whom the evil King Ahab and his notorious wife Jezebel had worshiped. The king and queen were out to kill him. He was tired and weak and afraid. He flees to Beersheba but is instructed to go to Horeb where God will encounter him.

He had been witness to God’s power and greatness. God was with him when he called down divine power on the thrice-drenched sacrifice in the presence of the prophets of Baal and the people Israel, after the failed attempts of the Baal prophets to have their sacrifice consumed. After soaking the offering, Elijah invoked the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Immediately a huge fire descended from the skies, completely consuming the sacrifice.

Yet only days later, Elijah is afraid, tired and weak. Something is missing, something is needed. So the angel tells him to eat, to rest and then make the 40-day journey to Horeb. This is where Sunday’s reading picks up the story.

Elijah arrives, finds shelter and is told to go outside, where he will encounter the Lord. Based on his earlier experience, perhaps he was expecting something extraordinary, something magnificent, something powerful, visible and great.

Those expectations did not match what God had in mind. The great manifestations of the heavy wind, the earthquake and the fire came and went, but God was not in them. Rather, he came in the “tiny whispering sound.” It was in that “tiny whispering sound” that Elijah found the God he served.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Peter is on the Sea of Galilee, in a boat with the other disciples. Jesus was not with them. He was on the mountain taking some time by himself to pray. The darkness of night had fallen. The disciples were being rocked in the boat by waves. The Sea of Galilee is known for the tremendous storms that rise suddenly above its waters. They were afraid. Peter was afraid.

The Lord approaches them walking on the water. They think it’s a ghost because no one is able to walk on water. “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid,” says the Lord.

Peter doubts. It is as if the darkness, the storm, the waves and everything else gets in the way and he puts the Lord to the test: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

The Lord complies and says, “Come.” It is as if he is saying, “Come to me; leave your fear, your doubts, your insecurity, your own ideas on how this is supposed to work, leave it all behind and come be with me.”

Peter gets out of the boat and to his amazement and the astonishment of all, he too walks on the water. This does not last long, as his worries and anxieties get in the way. Filled with fear, he notices how strong the wind is and begins to sink into the water crying out, “Lord, save me.”

Jesus reaches out his hand, catches Peter and says: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” They get into the boat and the wind dies down. The story concludes with the disciples acclaiming, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Perhaps the two stories give us some insight into our relationship with God, our expectations and his encounter with us. God is always present. He is always reaching out to us. He does it in a variety of ways. He is especially present to us when we are troubled or anxious or afraid.

This is a comfort in these days of uncertainty. People are anxious not only about the illness that can be spread, but all the implications of dealing with it. Fear of another shut down, of unemployment, of caring for and educating our children, and anxiety over our older population are regularly on our minds.

Coupled with this is a renewed awareness of the racial discrimination, the plight of the poor and the great divide in our society based on wealth. Civil unrest looms. Further complications come in a lack of trust in leadership and another divide on how to handle the pandemic.

These are troubling times. Yet God does not want us to be alone or afraid. He comes into our lives and invites us to open the door to let him in. Like Elijah or Peter, we may have our own ideas on how this should happen. However, their encounters remind us that maybe it’s better for God to decide how that happens.

Maybe all he wants from us is a willingness or openness or readiness to encounter him — in other words, faith. The words he spoke to Peter, and as he says numerous times, once again he speaks to us: “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.