August 13, 2023
Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Last Sunday, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, we heard a Gospel passage (Mt 17:1-9) about a theophany, which occurred on a mountain, Mount Tabor.
Today as well, the Gospel tells us about a theophany that occurred not on a mountain, but in the middle of a lake, Lake Tiberias (Mt 14:22-33).
More precisely, the theophany takes place in the midst of a stormy lake: We are no longer on the quiet and calm mountaintop, where Jesus had ascended to find, in peace, the space of intimate dialogue with the Father, but amid the threatening waves of the lake, shaken by a strong wind.
There the Lord reveals Himself, and this is an important first element, because perhaps we all need to know that God dwells in our storms, that He reveals Himself and comes to us even in our darkest and most difficult moments. Even there, there is a Word for us, and this passage can really help us to hear the Word of the Lord hidden in the storm.
In the middle of the stormy lake, the disciples, alone, see Jesus coming toward them, but they do not recognize Him: they think He is a ghost (Mt 14:26) and so they feel great fear. The Gospel does not say that the disciples were afraid of the storm: what frightened them is this presence. They could not recognize it, or define it, as they were experiencing the reality of it. This presence overcomes them.
And that is why it makes them think of a ghost.
What is a ghost? A ghost is something that was alive, but is no longer, and becomes present with its death. Someone who has more contact with the realm of the dead than with the realm of the living, someone who has no words and therefore can be frightened.
Which led for the disciples to be afraid and cry out (Mt 14:26). Simply, Jesus calmed their fear by speaking to them in the same manner a mother would speak to calm her child's fears.
Jesus speaks, and he says two basic things.
First, he says, "I am." "I am" is the very name of God, the name by which God revealed himself to Moses (Ex 3). That means: I am there, I am here, I am with you, I am the very life that makes itself present, which becomes relationship, and never abandons.
There, where the disciples think they see a ghost, a nonlife, Jesus reveals not only that he is present, but that he is the Present One. And is God himself who is close, and near: Only this can save us from fear.
In fact, it is the second word, which invites the disciples not to be afraid: "Courage, it is I, do not be afraid." It is interesting that we heard this same word last Sunday in the theophany on the mount. Basically, this is the summary of everything God wants to say to man: Do not be afraid. Don't be afraid of me, don't be afraid of the storm, don't be afraid of death. There I am.
When the disciples heard the Word spoken to them from the depths of the storm, the storm no longer seemed scary. To the point that Peter dared to ask to walk on the sea, as Jesus is doing.
And he walks, without fear, on the stormy sea, trusting the Word that told him that He is there, He is present. Only when the voice of the wind is louder than the voice of the Word, only then does Peter sink, and again he cries out and asks for salvation.
It is not Jesus who asks Peter to walk on the storm, it is Peter who does that. Jesus does not ask us for the impossible, he does not ask us for a confidence to do extraordinary things. He simply asks us to let Him into our boat, to welcome His "I am" into our lives, because only then does the wind cease, and there is room to hear His effective Word.
One final point: the invitation not to be afraid returns at the end of Matthew's Gospel, when the women made their way to the tomb and there was a great earthquake. An angel comes down from heaven and rolls away the stone that closed the tomb, and he too speaks, "You, do not be afraid" (Mt 28:5).
Here, too, we are amid a great storm, here, too, we are in a time of great crisis: "I am" has been placed in a tomb, and he seems to have no words for his disciples.
But this is not true as the power of evil has not succeeded in silencing the Word, which from the abyss of death came back victorious: As a final and perfect Word. Now, after Jesus has been risen, and death had been conquered, it really is possible not to allow our differing fears and concerns to determine our choices.