Sunday, July 10, 2011

Resounding on the waters

One evening last weekend while I was on vacation, my brother-in-law carefully maneuvered his boat from the Ohio River onto the Muskingum and up into Marietta, Ohio. Anchored there with many other boaters as dusk fell, he and my sister, mother, nephew, and I prepared to watch the city’s annual Fourth of July fireworks display over the water.

As the show began, it quickly became obvious that the only way to watch with ease was to recline on our backs or slouch down in our seats and look straight up into the starry sky. The shells were exploding directly over our heads, high above the river. Each soaring flare and burst of shimmering color was quickly followed by a splitting boom that seemed to slice the heavens and shake the mountains around us as if we were meeting God at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Positioned as we were, with our bodies parallel to the river and just a couple feet above the water, we also experienced an almost indescribable sensation. Each boom was quickly followed by a resounding echo that seemed to travel along the river and then back into our very bones through the water directly below us. If you’ve ever been on or near a lake or river during a thunderstorm or a fireworks display, you know what I mean. The water magnifies the sound descending from above.

The sensation reminded me of the theophany of Psalm 29, which describes the presence of God revealed in a thunderstorm over the water:
The Lord's voice resounding on the waters,
the Lord on the immensity of waters;
the voice of the Lord, full of power,
the voice of the Lord, full of splendor.
For some reason, this imagery again came to mind as I listened to the opening lines of today’s Gospel reading at Mass (Matthew 13:1-23). The text describes Jesus sitting down by the sea, and as large crowds gather around him, getting into a boat and addressing the people standing along the shore. This is a perfectly practical act in and of itself. Jesus needed space from which to address his followers, and the water from which he spoke would have magnified his voice for all to hear.

However, there are deeper, theological implications as well. Imagine standing on that shore and listening to the power and force of Jesus’ message being carried by the water directly into your bones. The Word made Flesh, God Among Us speaks, and the water magnifies the sound descending from above:
The Lord's voice resounding on the waters,
the Lord on the immensity of waters;
the voice of the Lord, full of power,
the voice of the Lord, full of splendor.
From a boat used by human beings to sail across the water, the God of glory thunders, and his Word is magnified and carried throughout the world. This image, of course, can be connected with that of the story of creation in Genesis, in which the wind (or spirit) of God sweeps over the waters (Genesis 1:1-2).

So what is being communicated to us through these passages from Holy Scripture? Perhaps the key to pondering this further lies in the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel—specifically Matthew 14:22-33—in which Peter is called forth by Jesus to walk on the water with him. Here we have the fearful disciples in a boat being tossed about by the waves on the stormy sea. Suddenly, Jesus appears, walking toward them on the water!

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells them.

Then Peter expresses some measure of faith. “If it’s you,” he calls out, “command me to come to you on the water.” A bold request! Jesus has no problem with it. “Come,” he says.

So Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. However, when he loses focus, he begins to sink and cries out for help. Jesus reaches out and saves him, and the wind dies down.

In the ancient world, the sea represented darkness, danger, and death. So, in a very real sense, these passages and images from Scripture illustrate God’s redeeming power over these elements, manifested fully in the person of Jesus, which means “God saves.”

However, God doesn’t want us to simply listen to the message of salvation from the safety of the shore. Neither does he wish us to cower in fear as we are tossed about by life’s storms. Jesus invites us to step out of the boat, to break out of our comfort zones and leave behind excessive concerns for health, wealth, control, and security.

He wants us to participate in his redeeming power over darkness, danger, and death. He desires for us to come to him, to magnify his voice, and carry his Word over the waters, echoing to the ends of the earth.

There is nothing to fear. If we begin to sink from time to time, he will be there to catch us. And we don’t need to be as spectacular as a fireworks display. We simply need to walk with Jesus above the stormy waves and through the abyss, giving witness to the power of God that turns back the tide of darkness. As St. Francis of Assisi would say: “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.”

God’s voice can thunder through our lives if we allow his Word to travel through us like the Muskingum River carrying and magnifying the sound of booming fireworks descending from above. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the perfect model in this regard. She doesn’t say much in Scripture, but her witness to the Word born from her womb has echoed for 2,000 years. Her life, like the river during the fireworks show, magnifies God’s voice for all to hear. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” the pregnant Mary proclaims to Elizabeth (Luke 1:46) in the Magnificat, the canticle of praise we sing each evening at Vespers.

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. “Come, and with the Spirit of truth and love … move on the water’s face bearing the lamp of grace; now to all humankind let there be light” (a line from the hymn God, Whose Almighty Word, by John Marriott).

We’re all called to be part of the grand finale!

No comments: