12th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
Mark 4: 35-41
The storm rages and Jesus sleeps
What word is expected from a Christian who lives personal and family dramas in chain? Epidemics, earthquakes, tornadoes that hit parts of the world already ravaged by hunger and poverty, pose serious questions to the believer. Wars, violence, injustices, betrayals, it is true, can be attributed to man, but because man is so bad, could not God make him better?
In the past, the problem of evil is solved by downloading the blame on the devil, the laws of nature or by using magic formula: God does not want, but he allows. But if God can intervene in human history, why doesn’t he?
The enigma of evil cannot be explained by reasoning, otherwise Jesus would have clarified it. One day, when the history of the world will come to fruition, we will understand its meaning. However, God’s response to accusations that entitles us to ask him, shouting, with the apostles, “Don’t you care if we drown?” is only one and is the most unexpected. He does not put himself to argue but goes into our own boat. We are buffeted by the storm, but he is also there along with us. With the poor he has experienced poverty, with the excluded, rejection and marginalization; with the disappointed he has shared incomprehension and tears; with the betrayed the bitterness of being alone and abandoned, with the oppressed he has endured injustice and with the condemned to death he experienced shock and fear.
Yet the impression that he is asleep remains. With our cry, which is prayer, we would like to wake him up and force him to intervene. But he is already awake, he just have a different vision of the danger and how to deal with it. He asks for unconditional trust. We are tossed about, yes, by the waves of the sea, but even if we do not realize it, we are accompanied by him.
Gospel Reflection: Mark 4:35-41
Some signs that are narrated in the Gospels are puzzling: a fig tree withered to its roots because it does not bear fruit out of season (Mk 11:13), five to six hectoliters of water turned into wine (Jn 2:1-11), Jesus walks on the water and Peter tries to imitate him (Mt 14:22-33), Peter pays the temple tax with a silver coin found in the mouth of a fish (Mt 17:24-27). These are stories that should be read with great caution because, to redact them, the evangelists used images and introduced biblical references that are not always easy to grasp.
The calming of the storm, proposed to us in today’s Gospel, falls into this category of a bit particular miracles. The error that must be avoided is to consider it a detailedly accurate report of a true story. Some strange things immediately catch the eye: during the dangerous crossing Jesus sleeps while the disciples desperately tried, on their own, to struggle against the waves of the sea. However, it is unlikely that Jesus is able to rest peacefully on a small boat, full of water, at the mercy of the waves. Then, it is evening, Jesus and his disciples are tired and it would be time to go home in Capernaum. It would be hard to understand what they are going to do on the other side of the lake where they seem to have no friends. The following episode, in fact, clearly shows that they do not know anyone in that region (Mk 5:17). The disciples are turning to the Lord to save them, therefore showing that they believe in him. On the other hand they are reprimanded because they have no faith. Finally, after the wind has ceased, there was a great calm. The apostles, instead of being happy, “were terrified.”
These and other details are a tacit invitation to go beyond the simple matter of record and to look deeper, to discover the real message of the story. We are faced with a piece of theology which contains numerous biblical references. Mark’s purpose is not to show that Jesus is able to perform extraordinary wonders, but to gradually reveal his identity. The evangelist wants to answer the question people have been asking since the beginning of his public life: “Who is this person?”
Let’s start by decoding the language used by Mark. The boat, the place to which it is heading, the other boats that accompany that of the disciples’, the waves of the sea, the darkness of the night, Jesus sleeping, the wind, the storm and the fear that captures the apostles are images well known to the readers of the gospel, because they often recur in the Bible. Let us recall their meaning.
The story begins with two significant details: the time the event occurred occurrence and the destination of the trip.
It is evening. The day in which Jesus announced the kingdom of God is completed. The disciples enter the boat with the Master and head to the other side. Where do they go?
The rest of the Gospel (Mk 5:1) indicates the destination: the land of the Gerasenes, a pagan territory. Being breeders of pigs, the Gerasenes could only be pagans. Jews, in fact, do not eat unclean animals.
In ancient literature, the image of the boat indicates a community or an association. In our story it is the Christian community that, at the end of the day, that is the end of Jesus’ earthly life, is invited by the Master to go to “the other side,” that is, to go to the pagan nations. The boat is to bring Christ to them too, but during the crossing, a furious storm breaks out making it impossible to continue the journey, nay more, it jeopardizes the same boat and the lives of those on board.
The other boats, accompanying the one of Jesus with the Twelve, are introduced to indicate that, at the time of Mark, there were many Christian communities involved in adventurous crossing, following the apostles.
The difficulty of the task is underlined by another detail, the darkness of the night. In the Bible, the thick darkness always has a negative connotation. At the beginning of the world, before God subdue the sea, everything was shrouded in darkness (Gn 1:2).
It was during the night, when the darkness and the forces of evil and death seem to dominate unchallenged, God usually intervenes to let life burst. It happened on the night of deliverance from Egypt, as sung by the author of the Book of Wisdom: “When all was in quiet silence and the night was in the middle of its course, your mighty Word leapt down from the Royal Throne” (Ws 18:14-15). In a still darker night, that of the tomb, God manifested His power of salvation and life (Mt 28:2-6).
The scene that follows (vv. 37-38) mirrors deliberately that of Jonah, the prophet sent to Nineveh to bring the message of the Lord to the Gentiles. During the storm Jonah was also lying at the bottom of the ship and was fast asleep (Jon 1:5).
In our story Jesus is sleeping, and the evangelist notes, he was in the stern, instead of the helmsman. A pilot who, in a situation of extreme danger, falls asleep and is not interested in what happens, deserves a stern rebuke. The apostles move him, “Don’t you care if we drown?” The phrase is more dense than it looks. The disciples disjoint their condition from that of the Master: they are perishing; he is not, he does not perish; indeed, he seems not to be in danger and does not care of what’s happening.
Two more emphases. The first is about sleep that, in the Bible, is often used to indicate death (Job 14:12; Sir 46:19). Even Jesus takes it figuratively, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep” (Jn 11:11); “The child is not dead but asleep” (Mk 5:39-40). The second refers to the cushion, in the midst of the chaos, strangely remains under the head of Jesus. The presence of the cushion remains surprising when one considers that in Greek it is called, proskephalaion, which also indicates the pillow under the head of a dead person.
Now the meaning Jesus being asleep is clear. It refers to his death and the theological value of the whole scene is understood.
The disciples are tossed by the waves—which are the tragedies of life, persecution, tensions and disagreements within the Church community. The Master has concluded his day in this world; he accompanies his disciples, but never intervenes directly in history. He gives the impression that he wants to let everything take place as if he were not present.
Christians can, at times, feel alone in the face of problems, adversities, failures and ask, “Where is God? Where is Christ? Why does he not manifest his power?” They feel him distant or absent; his silence baffles them and instills fear. They would shout to him, with the Psalmist: “Awake, O Lord, why are you asleep?” (Ps 44:24).
The confusion stems from the fact that they would want to have a God who intervenes, on command, to alter the balance of power that exist in the world, who is allied with those who suffer injustice to defeat and humiliate those who commit it.
Jesus reveals to us a God who “sleeps”, who leaves things as they are, who has nothing to fear in front of the outbreak of violence of evil, who is not afraid of losing control of the situation. He is a God who lets go, allows that envy, rivalries, lies, injustices break out and that the events may run their course. Then, when evil seems to have the last word, he turns the cards and shows that he has won.
He makes use of the same forces of evil to implement his plan of salvation and love. We cry out to him to drag him into our anxieties; he answers us, introducing us to his peace.
It is in this light that the rebuke of Jesus to the disciples is explained. They made the mistake of remembering him only when they were in a desperate situation. He who has faith lives in constant dialogue with Christ and with his word. He does not call him only when things go wrong. The apostles thought of having to rely solely on their ability. They did not understand that Jesus was beside them, always, as he had promised (cf. Mt 28:20). He was with them, but in a different way, because he had fallen asleep… in the sleep of death …
I left for last the most important lesson of the passage. At the end of the story Mark notes that the disciples were filled with awe and wonder at each other, “Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” (v. 41).
They have their own reasons for asking this question because, from the Holy Scriptures, they have learned that only God has the power to impose on the waves of the sea. If Jesus has this divine authority, it means that he is the Lord. That’s why, like Moses and all those who have had an encounter with God, the disciples are seized by “fear.” It is not the fear, the fright that takes hold of those who face danger, but the amazement of those who have accepted in Jesus the Lord able to master all the forces that threaten their lives.
Having decoded the biblical language of which it is soaked, the passage reveals its literary genre. It is not a story of a miracle, but a theophany, a manifestation of the strength in Jesus, of the saving power of God. It is Mark’s and the primitive communities’ profession of faith in the divinity of Christ.