Mark 6:45-52 – Water, Water Everywhere

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

MARK 6:45-52


They are probably some of the most mis-quoted and distorted lines in poetry – Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner becomes garbled as people think they have it and then, in their finest and most declamatory tones, annunciate nonsense!  This is what Taylor Coleridge wrote:

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

samuel taylor coleridge
the rime of the ancient mariner

As we move on with Mark we might do a little retuning ourselves and give the lines our own pithy twist:

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

But Jesus didn’t sink.

Once again, we find ourselves on the waters, and in difficulty; at sea, but not lost.  Mark’s fascination with Jesus and the disciples’ toing and froing on the Sea of Galilee really asks for our serious consideration.  But before that, there’s still the matter of a mighty crowd, who have just been fed.

Jesus first sends the disciples away, in the boat, to cross back over to Bethsaida.  Why does he do this?  Originally, the disciples had been the ones who wanted to send the great crowd away, to search for food themselves in neighbouring towns and villages.  Jesus had stymied this behaviour – he did not want the relationship between this gathering of people and himself to be subject to the limitations of human demands and frustrations – he is the one who shapes the relationship with his community, and he asks for the cooperation of those who work with him in the great endeavour.  So, it seems that, although the disciples are his trusted companions, men whom he has formed sufficiently to go out on mission with one another, and who brings back results, to put it crudely, his relationship with these followers is still very much his own concern.  In any case, Jesus must know that something is about to unfold which will have greater impact with his disciples and himself separated, if only for a little while. 

In a few words Mark demonstrates Jesus’ closeness to this multitude – he sends them away by saying goodbye to them.  This isn’t a perfunctory dismissal – does it have the ring of “see you again soon” perhaps?  They have heard much, seen much, received much – are these a last few moments to allow all that to settle and sink in before they go on their many ways to their own homes?  Whatever it may be, Jesus is being the shepherd to these people which he noted was lacking – seeing the void in their lives he supplies in the fullest terms: Jesus cannot help but respond to needs when he identifies them, and lightens them by providing effectively.

There’s something here which asks us about how we welcome and dismiss others: they are means and greetings and gestures which allow us to receive a person or take our leave of a person – and how do we do it?  With joy, gratitude, longing for the next meeting, sorrow at taking leave, with words, gestures, embraces which speak for us?  Or is it a matter of anger, rejection, bitterness, lacking forgiveness or comfort?  Recall for a moment the leave taking and return of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32) – the attitudes and responses and reactions of all three players in that parable.  Or, perhaps, how do I receive and welcome Christ, for example, in the celebration of the sacraments, or in my lectio, or in the one who comes to me or who is known to me to be in need?

Jesus is once again alone, and being alone means that he is with the Father and is already deeply immersed in that relationship with the Father which is peculiarly theirs.  Once again, he withdraws, and goes up the mountain to pray.

Listen to Mark telling you about all the places where prayer and transformation in the presence of God is possible.  The lonely, separate, different place, which appeared lifeless and dusty desert but is, in fact, lush with living green grass.  And now, the mountain which Jesus ascends, a place which is consecrated in the minds of believers and non-believers alike.  Tabor and Hermon figure large in Jewish salvation stories, as well as Sinai the place of the Decalogue’s writing, and the shared site in the cave which sheltered, at different times, Moses and Elijah when they encountered God and he passed by them in those great moments of theophany.  And for Jesus, and his disciples, and therefore us as well, transfiguration will open the eyes and hearts of those who truly see him as he is in a mountainous place removed and yet in our midst.  So, it’s no wonder that here Jesus ascends to pray, rising above, quite literally, the hubbub below and the noise and busyness of his life, to almost perfect silence and solitude.  And this “rising above” must also be the invitation to us as well.

We should note that Jesus’ times of prayer – and we are never quite sure how long those prayer moments last, and so their length of time becomes secondary compared to what takes place in those moments – are always times which allow one chapter to close and another chapter to begin.  It is as if Jesus enters into his prayer to bring a finish to one action and undertaking, moving it gently aside from his attention and consciousness, so that he can give himself fully to the next moment and work.  This is a central lesson for us: to be able to draw a close to one work before moving on to the next.  Even in little things there is a need for us to finish completely, so that we can give ourselves to the next task.  That Jesus does it by praying is a beautiful invitation to us – it asks the God who is the beginning and the end of all that we do and say to do just that – bring everything that he begins in our lives to an end, and begin the word or work in himself and in which we cooperate.  So runs that prayer, the Actiones Nostras:

Actiones nostras, quaesumus, Domine, aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere, ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a Te semper incipiat et per Te coepta finiatur.  Per Christum Dominum nostrum.  Amen.

Lord, we beseech you, may everything that we do begin with your inspiration and continue with your help, so that all our prayer and work may always begin in you and through you may be brought to an end.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen

It takes just a moment to ask that our next task, or word, or meeting be consecrated by God’s blessing and his presence among us; and a moment afterwards to commend whatever we have done or said to his care and completion so that his will be brought to fulfilment in our work, bringing forth whatever fruit he wills, when he wills, for the purpose that he wills  It is, after all, Jesus’ great prayer in his darkest moment:

“Let it be as you, not I, would have it”

Mark 14:36

Separation from Christ is never a good thing!  Mark makes this point – the disciples have rowed far out into the sea and Jesus is still alone, on land.  In one sense, the disciples cannot have helped this – Jesus himself has instructed them to go ahead, and yet they seem to have gone astray.  And their wandering off course has left them tired and struggling.  It could be any of us – trying to make the crossing from one place to another pretty much by dint our own efforts will soon leave us weary and journey sore.  In contrast to the previous seascape (4:35-41) there is no storm here – just a very strong wind which is working against the disciples (or are they working against it?).  But it’s enough to let us know that they are lost without Jesus.  And neither is Jesus with his disciples in the boat – on this occasion he will come to them.

So the scene is pretty much set – in the dark of night (the fourth watch, so about 10pm), and with them by this stage exhausted, Jesus comes across the water towards the boat.  As with the miracle of the loaves and fish, many are keen to debunk this miracle which Jesus performs, suggesting even that he is walking in shallows (despite the fact that Mark explicitly says that the boat was far out on the lake, literally, in the middle of the sea).  But the entire weight of the passage emphasizes that what is happening here cannot rationally be explained – and this is confirmed by the reaction of the disciples to what they see – had they still been in shallow waters, or Jesus there himself, they would not have been so disturbed and troubled.  Thus this is Jesus as he is walking towards them on the water.

No one who is aware of the single great salvific intervention by God on behalf of his people in the Old Testament book of Exodus can overlook the link being made here.  The crossing from the place of the multiplication of the loaves and fish to Bethsaida by way of water brings to mind the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus, a crossing which, leading from a place of slavery to a place which began the passage to freedom, is made extraordinary principally by the path through the water.  God it is who allows this to happen – the waters are shown to be, once again as at creation, and in the time of Noah, subject to their Creators’ command, and give way for his people.  Something similar happens here – the waters will not engulf Christ, will not swallow him up, but rather, on the contrary, become the way by which he chooses to go to his disciples.  This Jesus is Lord of the waters also, as he was shown to be Lord of nature before, and as he has just been shown to be Lord of the natural elements of food, calling forth the faith of believers.  Water, such an ambivalent reality in Sacred Scripture, having within it both the power of creation and cleansing and at the same time destruction, is shown here to be subject, as is all creation, to the one through whom all came into being. 

The disciples are terrified, and rightly so – but this is not the fear which is irrational.  This is, properly, the fear of the Lord, the awe which is felt when human persons become aware of the divine presence and are overwhelmed by it!

But still, they see him and take him for a phantasm, an apparition, a ghost.  They will believe that he is a ghost, but not that he is God!  There is a strange mix here, utter confusion on the part of the disciples in the boat, and probably ourselves also who are watching this scene unfold, feeling this scene unfold – what is happening here is impossible.  In other words, when I say this to myself, I am saying: what is happening here is impossible for me!  In Mark’s account there is no Peter to shout out to Jesus, be invited by Jesus onto the water, to walk for a bit then panic and sink, only to be drawn up to safety by Jesus.  There is only Jesus who walks over the water, and me who refuses to believe.  But, according to Sacred Scripture, nothing is impossible for God (Matthew 19:26; Luke 1:37, also).  Only our own irrationality (I believe in ghosts but not in God!), and our refusal to accept what Jesus does – as Jesus – comes in the way of my moving forward:

“Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried, or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked…  These are the trials through which we triumph,  by the power of him who loved us.  For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height, or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord”

Romans 8:35-39

Nothing can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ.  Nothing, that’s to say, except our own irrational unbelief, and own irrational belief in the unacceptable and non-existent.

Jesus comforts.  He doesn’t allow us to remain in a place where we should become overwhelmed by anxiety or irrational fear and worry – only we ourselves allow these moments to last.  Here he is, putting new heart into his disciples and taking away their fear by his presence and his words.  There cannot be any other alternative than that he addresses these words personally to me, now, explicitly, in the midst of whatever weighs me down, contorts my faith, hope and love in him and of him, robs me of the trust that he has in me and invites me to have in him – Be of good heart!  It is I!  Do not be afraid!  Christ addresses these words principally by his presence – we should have new heart put within us and allow fear to be moved aside because it is he who is here with me and no one else.

In short, Mark places in Jesus’ mouth the words which, in Jewish hearts and minds can mean only one thing, and which in the Gospel of John will take on such dramatic significance: Ego eimi, says Jesus in the Greek text: I am!

These are the words which are first given to Moses in Exodus 3:14 by God, speaking from the heart of the bush, and in answer to Moses’ question, “Who shall I say sent me?”  God gives Moses – and us and all times and peoples and nations – his name, a name which cannot be spoken because of its utterly other character and its sacredness, which was spoken just once a year by the High Priest in Jewish ritual in the Holy of Holies on the feast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and could not otherwise be said: this is how Jesus identifies himself to the disciples and to us now.

Jesus says plainly to the disciples – I am God, and you refuse to see it, hear it, recognise it, accept it.  But, of course, this is not merely the disciples.  This question is continually addressed to me: Jesus shows himself to me and asks for recognition.  How disappointed people often are whom we have met before and yet, fail to recognise, or whose names we fail to recall.  And here is God asking to be recognised and have his name recalled by us.  We have short memories.

Courage!  I Am is here!

So, when Jesus steps into the boat, and the wind drops, one can understand why the disciples are struck dumb – they cannot have any other response, and it is a response not to what has happened but to who is there in their midst.  But the complete frustration of this passage: Mark says that their minds are still closed, they cannot see what significance the miracle of the loaves had!  They are blind and deaf to God standing with them.  They cannot overcome their unwillingness to believe that Jesus is God with them.

This is, of course, part and parcel of Mark’s narrative, right up to the resurrection and post-resurrection encounter between the Risen Jesus and the disciples: their refusal to believe.  From this perspective we ourselves are put on the spot – if we are counted among the disciples, those who are closest to Christ, who are first hand witnesses, who are there when he preaches, cures, feeds, calms storms and winds, walks on water … then we are among them also as unbelievers.  We see and hear but refuse to give ourselves over to belief and acceptance.  It’s Mark’s question above all: here is the evidence, plain and simple, in words and deeds, reported by faithful witnesses – do you believe or don’t you.  Can God multiply loaves and fishes and feed thousands upon thousands because he wants to, or can’t he?  Can God walk on water to go and meet his disciples and friends who are in trouble and need affirming and heartening, or can’t he (because I refuse to believe!)?

God’s existence and his work doesn’t, in fact, depend upon my belief or unbelief.  But my belief or unbelief is the key to my acceptance of all that he offers me.  The Gospel in the first instance is about belief – in the Son of God, who died on the cross, lay in the tomb, and was raised by God the Father, in the Spirit, to life.  Essentially, that’s why I can’t walk on water, but will continue to get into difficulty while floating on it!

What does St John say to us at the close of his Gospel, which should shake us because we are lukewarm?

“There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book.  These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name”

John 20:30-31

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

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