Who Can This Be?
Mark 4: 35 — 41
It can help to remember that St Mark's account of the Gospel was based largely on the preaching of St. Peter, arranged and shaped by John Mark. Most scholars agree with the traditional belief that it reflects the teaching of the Church mainly at Rome.
The great persecutions of the Church by the Roman authorities were both relentless and horrific, and caused great fear among the members. The Gospel account recorded by St Mark was certainly used by the infant Church for comfort to the afflicted, and encouragement for all to persevere in the face of unprecedented cruelty and oppression. The many vivid memories recorded in the Gospel are painted in word pictures rather like icons which keep the Living Word ever before our eyes, the eyes of faith, that is.
By today's standards, one could almost think of St Mark's Gospel as a "leaflet". Our short text of 4: 35 — 41 is therefore like a "paper clipping" which narrows our focus and attention to encounter Jesus in action.
An icon is a doorway, an entrance into spiritual reality which is not obvious to the untrained eye. We must be careful not to mistreat the text but rather let it lead us beyond our natural, material perceptions, to behold the real Jesus, and to hear what he is really teaching.
Some Notes On the Text
Verses 35 and 36
At the beginning of chapter 4, St Mark shows our Lord confronted by such a large crowd wanting to hear him teach, that he climbs into a boat on the water's edge. From there he teaches for the rest of the day, specifically the parable of the sower, the mustard seed, and other lessons.
Remembering that the seaside is a favourite place for our Lord to visit, and that he also enjoyed teaching any group who were willing to listen to him, we observe that as evening approaches Jesus gives the order: "Let's go across the lake!" He is a wise man who knows he needs quiet and rest. His friends are well aware of what he means and they leave immediately in the same boat from which he had been teaching, accompanied by some other vessels.
Verses 37 and 38
While they are moving across the lake Jesus quietly dozes off into a deep sleep.
A fierce squall starts causing the boat to take in water. The disciples try frantically to bail out and keep afloat but the storm gets the better of them. They avoid waking Jesus who appears oblivious to it all, but eventually they can bear it no longer. They were very experienced fishermen, so it must have been some storm!
Our Lord meanwhile has borrowed "the" cushion (part of the equipment) and made himself comfortable at the back of the boat. Shaking him (probably less than the storm did) they say, "Teacher, we are sinking! Do you not care?" The disturbance of the sea didn't wake Jesus, but the despair of the disciples does!
With great dignity Jesus awakes and immediately commands the wind and the sea: "Be Silent! Be Still!" The elements obey! Normally when a great wind dies down, the large waves roll in for hours. Not on this occasion!
Verses 39 and 40
Jesus turns his attention next to the storm that is raging inside his disciples. They are afraid of what is going on around them. That is expected of people of the world, but not of his disciples. He asks the question very calmly: "Why are you afraid?" He did not say, as the boat was about to go down, "Don't be afraid." Jesus seizes the teaching moment for those who are so loyal to him and would do anything for him. He has them examine their own souls, implying, "You need to be aware of why you were afraid."
They had been listening carefully to him all day and hanging on every word: but that is not enough. They must learn to take in what he teaches and hold it interiorly, pondering, reflecting, and letting his teaching reveal to their souls who this great teacher is.
Jesus asked them a question, but he does not want to hear their answer, at least, not now. They are to ponder!!!
In the presence of power even greater than the terrifying storm the disciples are awestruck. Inwardly, like the disordered elements, they too respond to his word, for immediately they look at one another and declare: "Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him." The storm hijacked their faith but with a small nudge from Jesus they are back on track. In no time he has them occupied with him and not the storm. There lay the source of the only disorder they would ever need to be afraid of: not pondering in their depths, the Lord, and what he had taught them.
The reading closes with a powerful statement in the present tense:
"Even the wind and the sea obey him!"
The Church has always understood this event not so much as a past historical incident, but as symbolic of our Lord's abiding power to rescue his own from tribulation. (See Jerome Commentary)
If we recall verse 39 in which Jesus commands the sea to be absolutely perfectly calm, we can understand the reaction of the Lord's disciples. No one had spoken in this way except God at creation at the time of the great flood, and at the exodus from Egypt.
The early Church identified Jesus as God the Son. What was true of the God of Israel was understood to be true of him. The Church therefore interpreted this awesome event as meaning they were not to be contaminated by the turbulent disruption and disintegration of so much around them.
Rather, they were to be agents of peace: they were to stamp the world with the tranquillity and certitude of their faith. This they and their successors did for over a thousand years throughout all Christendom despite every negative force that could be turned against them. Such was the impact of the teaching of Jesus on those who let it nurture their soul.
In carrying out the Lord's commands, they knew they could not expect to avoid very distressing oppression and trouble. The Church moving through the ages and out into new frontiers must not expect the calm waters of a harbour. Thus they were abundantly clear that they were not to be diverted either by the power (or apparent power) of opposing forces or by the temptations to popular (but false) religion.
We noted earlier that "an icon is a doorway, an entrance into spiritual reality", meaning it leads the one who ponders it in their heart to see things as they really are, i.e. with "the mind of Christ". The vivid word pictures of the Gospels, when pondered in one's depths, because they are passed on to us from Jesus by the Holy Spirit, have the power to transform our fears and inadequacies into a spiritual force greater than anything we will ever confront! How can this be so? The words of Jesus, when meditated on, lead us to an encounter with the One who passed them on. The text we have reflected on above is an example of a word picture to be repeated, talked about, meditated on and passed on! Meditation is an essential ingredient of mission and witness.
Many a Christian, having these great lessons engraved on their hearts, embraced suffering, persecution, injustice and cruel death for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom. They found it an honour to do so, and as they underwent their torment, attracted many others to the Faith. Meditation on the Gospels, indeed, is an essential ingredient of true witness and genuine growth of the Church in the world. We hope these notes encourage you to return often to the Biblical text for the week, and to be nurtured by Him whose words they record.
We close with a short commentary on our text from each of two giants of the Faith.
St Augustine A.D. 400
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