Mark 4:35-41 – The Calming of the Storm

We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…

MARK 4:35-41


After the interlude of parables concerning the kingdom of God, Mark pitches us back into the action as suddenly as the storm which he now narrates. 

It’s evening, a busy day of preaching and teaching has come to an end for the Master and his disciples and the crowds who have hung on his every word and deed.  But the evening of the day is not yet a time for rest.  On the contrary, Mark shows us that a different sort of encounter, and revelation, and realisation, all unlooked for, is about to unfold.

The evening is always an important time of transition for us.  Usually, and still for many of us, the natural daily rhythm means that we have the working day behind us, and we move into a different gear.  In the Church’s life the evening brings a time of prayer, a time to thank God for the day just passed, but also a time of renewed intercession as we enter the night.  It was the time of the lighting of lamps – Lucernarium – to accompany God’s people into the uncertainty of night-time.  It is a time when we pray Psalm 90, according to St Benedict’s instruction for the psalmody of Compline (Night Prayer) , before we retire for the night.  The prayer in that psalm is very much one of seeking the refuge that God alone can give:

“You will not fear the terror of the night,

Nor the arrow that flies by day,

Nor the plague that prowls in the darkness,

Nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.

“Since he clings to me in love, I will free him,

Protect him, for he knows my name.

When he calls, I will answer him;

I will be with him in distress;

I will deliver him and give him glory”.

Psalm 90

Psalm 90 is a prayer of extraordinary trust in the God who saves, and who sends his angels to support us.  God is one who reaches out to us in powerful ways in the midst of the most challenging circumstances – when we call on him, he answers us, although perhaps not always in the way we are expecting or wanting.  Transition is often traumatic, even in very small ways – we have to renounce and that inevitably opens a gap in our lives asking to be filled.  But it provides a moment to look forward, as well as put behind us.

Not for nothing does Mark have Jesus “crossing over to the other side”.  Jesus is always on the move, and he knows the right time to leave a place and move on.  But even the movement, the crossing, the transition, is filled with a reality which implies change and God’s presence.  There is an invitation here to us – God is never absent, especially on our journeys.  While the point of departure is important – I have to know where I’m coming from – and the point at which we aim is even more important – I have to know what the short term and long term goals in my life are – I journey in this present moment.  I am a pilgrim and traveller to this present moment.

The French painter Paul Gaugin entitled one of his last pieces “Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going?”  Those three questions form an interesting scaffolding upon which to hang the fundamental reflections about our own lives and selves.  Perhaps the middle one might be better expressed “Where Are We Now?”, since that middle question, in many ways, serves to sum up the restlessness of our human heart and lives – not simply “what am I?” but “Who am I?”.  

And above all Christ continually asks to reflect on that fundamental question “where am I now?”   To avoid living in the present moment is to avoid living in the encounter with God – and this little passage in Mark, and all that occurs in the gospel narratives, forces us to meet God in the now, not in the past nor in the future.

Who accompanies us in our transitions, our crossings from side to side, from place to place, from one way of living to another, and finally in the moment when life and death meet in a single moment?  Who accompanies us in the storms which break in upon our lives, storms which we perceive building on the horizons of our existences, storms which rise up almost without warning and threaten suddenly to overturn us?  And whom are we accompanying, and how? 

This is the evening of the day.  The first time we encounter such a thing is the very first evening, according to the sacred authors who put together the great creation myth at the beginning of the Book of Genesis:

“God said, ‘Let there be light.’ and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and God divided light from darkness.  God called the light ‘day’ and darkness he called ‘night’.  Evening came and morning cane: the first day”.

Genesis 1

So, here we are with Jesus and his disciples, on the water, and evening is coming.  We have come to a moment in which something new is going to happen, something new is going to be revealed, a new power is going to be manifest, over the waters and the elements.  Mark is showing us a new creative word that is about to be spoken, the Word through whom everything is created is going to speak.  With Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God, a new creation comes into being, and his disciples – and the others who are there in the other little boats – are going to be witnesses to this, even if they don’t yet fully grasp its enormity.

Do we grasp its enormity, even after millennia of reflection, and teaching, and wisdom, and personal experience?  God is ever-creative, he never stops pouring himself into his creation to give it life.  And I, the one made in his image and likeness, stand atop that creation, and he pours his life into me!  In the gospels, Jesus brings with him a new creation, a new beginning, a new order.  It’s fascinating at this point to allow ourselves to recall that God is Creator and creation tells us about its Author.  Take a moment to read Wisdom 13 and see how the writer is attuned to God’s presence.  Or take a moment to consider Gerard Manley Hopkins’ reflections in his poem God’s Grandeur, in which he stretches the elements of language and image to try to release his thought in the most appropriate way:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

God’s Grandeur“, Gerard Manley Hopkins

Or his poem, Pied Beauty, with imagery tumbling out of its happy mouth:

Glory be to God for dappled things –

   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                             Praise him.

Pied Beauty“, Gerard Manley Hopkins

The storm is a crazy, elemental upending of peaceful reality.  Why does it happen?  It comes out of the blue, with virtually no preparation, and almost destroys the little boat in which the disciples are struggling (and just succeeding) to stay alive, and Jesus is struggling (and obviously failing) to stay awake!  Is there a reason for this desperate situation?  Perhaps – but we do not know it, or, at least, not immediately.  Part of the restlessness that afflicts us all on our journey and search is precisely the demand to know the reason why something happens.  In many circumstances that is a justifiable position. Why has this sickness suddenly overtaken me?  Why has my partner been unfaithful to me?  Why have I been unfaithful to my partner?  Why have I been betrayed in this way?  Our lives are  pitted by the “why” question, sometimes to the extent that we lack much capacity for acceptance of things as they are and the humility to move on.

In that most emotional scene which John gives us in his Gospel, the death of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, and the grief and confusion and questions which populate those moments, Jesus states the purpose of this and all that is about to happen, at the beginning of the story:

“It is for God’s glory so that through it the Son of God may be glorified”

John 11:4

While humanly it can be difficult, if not often impossible, to see God at work and revealing himself and inviting our recognition of his presence in moments which seem to lack all (human) sense and explanation and reason, sometimes this is what we are asked to do.

Why does this storm break down upon them?  We don’t know absolutely, but God knows.  

Like the disciples, we are tempted to ask if he cares about us at all when the storms break out in our lives.  Those moments are the moments when we lose control – reflecting, we can be sure that the disciples found it impossible to say how they managed to keep their little boat afloat that night.  So also for us – it can be impossible to know how we are going to stay afloat, stay in control, when everything is swimming around usBut the apparent absence of God to us does not mean that he is absent – merely that we don’t yet see him at work.  Of course, Mark wants us to be amused at the apparent ludicrous picture which he paints – all hell breaks loose and Jesus sleeps!  And yet he never ceased to be present; he never ceased to be part of the lives of those disciples; he never ceased to be ready, when both he and they were ready, to take command.

God doesn’t put us to the test, pushing us to the limits of our endurance, almost breaking us before intervening.  This would be a most fickle, a most capricious sort of God.  He doesn’t delight in our suffering – look again at the conclusion of the Book of Jonah!  He’s ready when we are ready – and all too often we believe that we can manage by ourselves, that we can get through a crisis by ourselves – he waits for us to call out, and then he takes over the tiller.

“Why are you so frightened?  Have you still no faith?”  How tough it is to give over control of my life, to allow God to be the one who lays out his plans before me and then to row in with him.  The fear which cripples us all, of course, is very present – what if things do spin out of control?  What will become of me, my family, my home, my job…?

St John, in his first letter, tells us:

“In love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear, but fear implies punishment and no one who is afraid has come to perfection in love.  Let us love, then, because he first loved us” 

1 John 4:18-19

God is loving us in Christ, most especially in those moments when the storms are threatening to destroy all that we think is essential and without which we cannot live.  The question about the calming of the storm is God’s invitation to us to love him.  

Lastly, the disciples are overawed by their experience.  There are two questions here which depend upon one another.  We began this lectio by seeing that the passage is marked by transitions, focused in my own life.  The transitions mark the almost never-ending series of questions which I ask myself about myself and my own identity.  But they go hand in hand with the last one asked by the disciples: who is this man?  Who is God in Christ?

Even faced with all the evidence, they still do not want to admit it.   Hence Jesus’ question to them about their faith – do they still not believe?  The one who is master of the wind and sea, and all that it implies going right back to creation  – he is standing there in front of them, in the boat (perhaps, we might even say, a life-boat) with them, as plain as day. 

Why don’t I see him?  Why don’t I acknowledge him?  Or am I looking in the wrong places?

-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-

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