Tossed by the Waves’
When medieval artists and icon painters of the Eastern
Christian tradition portrayed Jesus about to be baptised
by John the Baptist, they often portrayed all sorts of
strange and menacing sea creatures in the waters in
which Jesus stood. This symbolised that, in accepting
baptism, Jesus was acting in solidarity with the human
condition, not least what threatens us.
The Jewish people of Jesus’s time would have understood the negative associations with water implied in these
images. Apart from those who fished for their living, Jesus’s Jewish contemporaries were not seafarers, unlike their
Phoenician neighbours. They had no great love for the sea. This is reflected in the Hebrew scriptures. In the Book of
Jonah the sea is presented as violent, tossing a boat about as though it were a mere toy; and with the monster whale
within the watery deep. The Red Sea consumed the Egyptians chasing after the Israelites in their exodus from slavery
in Egypt. And God punished humanity by covering the earth with a great flood, leaving only Noah, his family, and the
creatures in the ark.
Yet if the waters are presented as menacing, powerful, and destructive, they are also understood as being under the
power of God. After all, the primeval waters mentioned in Genesis owe their existence to God. And, as Jonah’s fellow
passengers discovered, just as God can unleash a great sea storm, so He can bring it to an end.
All these different elements (and more) are to be found in this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mark: 4: 35-41) about Jesus
calming the storm at the Sea of Galilee. Here too the waters are capable of unleashing ferocious destructive power.
Indeed, the Sea of Galilee is notorious for its storms that can come with little warning.
Although Jesus had already performed many miracles and exorcisms, that Jesus was now showing control over the
wind and sea – rebuking the wind and commanding the sea to be still, no less! – suggests something altogether
greater about Jesus than being simply a holy man and wonder-worker like some of the prophets of the past. After all,
it is God and God alone who controls the waters (and the wind). So the question of the disciples, ‘Who this this, that
even wind and sea obey him?’ signals a dawning upon them of the extent of Jesus’s special nature, what the
followers of Christ would come in time to recognise as his divinity.
Of course, present in this Gospel passage is not only the question of the recognition of who Jesus really is, but the
question of faith, trusting in the Lord. It’s not simply because Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Why are you afraid? Have
you no faith?’ It is also because the image of a storm-tossed boat lends itself so easily as a symbol of the turbulence
that can afflict any of us. It is at such difficult times when trust in God is especially important but can be most tested.
The Gospels do not deny that life can be very tough. Things might go well, but with little warning change like a
sudden storm on the sea: a relationship that seemed robust breaks down, an unwelcome diagnosis arrives out of the
blue, a job that seemed secure is lost, and so on. Life can impinge upon us so forcefully that even if we have great
faith, we are nonetheless tossed about like a boat in a mighty storm.
Trusting in God is not a kind of existential anaesthetic. If the story of Jesus in the Gospels ended with the narrative of
Jesus whose trust in the Father was so complete that he was able to asleep calmly on the storm-swept boat, then we
might be tempted to think of trust in God solely in these terms. But the Gospels continue and they tell us of a saviour
who wept, who sweated blood, and who died in agony. As the images of Jesus’s baptism remind us, he entered the
waters of the human condition. He knew what is it to be rejected, hurt, and afraid.
All the same, today’s Gospel with Jesus asleep in the boat does tell us something important about what it is to have
faith in the midst of great difficulties. That is, even though when we trust in God we can still feel greatly the pain and
fear due to what life can throw at us; yet, even if sometimes falteringly, there can also be an awareness that in the
midst of it all some part of us is like Jesus sleeping untroubled in the boat during the storm: an underlying
consolation of knowing that despite everything we are ultimately in God’s hands.
This Sunday’s Gospel reading, not only encourages us to trust in God, especially when life is hard. This is perhaps its
most obvious message. But, seen in the context of the whole Gospel narrative, it also gives us an insight into the
nature of what it is to have trust in God when suffering travails; and thus can help us to recognise the presence
within us of faith in God even when such faith is small and flickering, and when we feel tossed about, hurt, rejected,
With my prayers and very best wishes