“Quiet now! Be calm!” (Mk 4:39)
I have often wondered why in the churches we ring bells. For instance, in most Catholic churches we ring the bell at the beginning of mass and several times during the Eucharistic prayer. In some churches the altar servers have their own entertainment ringing the bells. Before the 2ndVatican council when the priest was standing between the people and the altar, and saying his prayers in Latin, it was important to alert the people to what was going on at the altar. Today, it is still used to mark the important moments – the high points – of the Eucharistic celebration; but perhaps it is also meant to wake up people who are asleep.
Many Hindu temples have bells at the entrance, and devotees would ring a bell as they enter the temple for worship. It is literally true that they ring the bell as we would ring the door bell before entering someone’s home. The bells in Hindu temples are meant to wake up the gods!In the gospel story of today (Mk 4:35-41), it seems that Jesus also needed an alarm bell to be woken up!
In the whole Gospel of Mark, there is an underlying theme of a hidden God, and what scholars have called, “Messianic Secrecy”. Next twenty Sundays or so, until the feast of Christ the King in November, we will be listening to the Gospel of Mark. One thing that I have come to know and appreciate recently, about the Gospel of Mark, is that the writer of the earliest of the gospels has his own underlying plan in the way he arranges the sequence of episodes. Almost every story seems to have some connection to what Mark has been previously talking about. In this light, I would like to interpret the gospel text that we have heard read today, in context of the whole of the Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark.
In Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins to preach in parables. He begins with the parable of the sower (Mk 4:1-9). This – his first parable – is not understood by all (vv.10-13). So he explains the parable in simple words (vv.14-20). Jesus continues to preach in parables: because he says, “to you is granted the secret of the kingdom of God, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables… so that they may look and look, but never perceive; listen and listen but never understand” (Mk 4:11-12). Those who already understand the secret of the kingdom will be given even more (v.25), and they are expected to put it on the lamp-stand for everyone to see (v.25). Then Jesus continues with other parables – one about the seed that grows unnoticed; and another about the mustard seed which is the smallest of the seeds. In short, in this chapter we have the themes of the truth of the kingdom being a secret, the kingdom being there but hidden, and towards all this the invitation from Jesus to his disciples is to have faith… and see what others don’t see!
It is to this sequence of the teachings of Jesus – which were delivered from the boat in a duration of one day – that the event of the calming of the storm (Mk 4:35-41) acts as an evening event – providing a powerful conclusion to Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark.
At the invitation of Jesus, the apostles make the crossing of the lake on the boat. Jesus is there in the boat. But he is hidden – because he is asleep. A storm breaks out. Jesus is there – but asleep. The apostles panic. But God is there – he is hidden. It seems that things have gone out of control. But God is there – and He is in control. The reaction of apostles surprises Jesus, because they are overcome by fear. Fear is the absence of faith. They have not yet understood the secret of the kingdom. The secret of the kingdom is there in the person of Jesus … but HE might lie hidden!
In the Old Testament, Prophet Isaiah (45:15) cries out, “Truly, Oh God of Israel, you are a God who lies hidden.”
And Prophet Jeremiah is surprised by the fact that evil people thrive. There are storms all over human history and God doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Evil seems rampant all over the world, and God seems not care. So he asks God (Jer 12:1-2): God, you are wise, but I would like to ask you a question: “Why is it that the way of the wicked prospers? Why do all treacherous people thrive? You plant them, they take root, they flourish, yes, and bear fruit.”
Job, overwhelmed by his own suffering, unable to bear the mockery of his own wife and friends, seems to have doubts about the presence of God in his life. And part of the answer of God to Job was what we heard in the first reading of today (Job 38:8-11).
And in the gospel text of today, the apostles question Jesus, “Master, do you not care? We are going down!” (Mk 4:39a). They don’t realise that if the boat should really go down, it would be Jesus who will be the first to go down, because he is asleep. They do know that Jesus could do something to save them, yet their faith is not strong enough to believe that Jesus could do something even when he is asleep. Yes, fear is the opposite of faith. And awe is an attitude of surrender to the presence of the unseen God!
So Jesus commands the storm: “Quiet now! Be calm!” (Mk 4:39b). This command is not just to the storm – but to the apostles: Let nothing perturb you. Why are you so frightened? Have you still no faith? If I am asleep, does it mean that I am not powerful? If my Father seems hidden, does it mean that he is not there? If life seems difficult, does it mean that I have abandoned you? Be calm! Everything is under control.
I would like to conclude with a story, that perhaps, some of us would be familiar with; but in the context of the Gospel of today it does have a special meaning.
One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.
This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it. “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.
The Lord replied, “My son, my precious child, I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.