The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
I Kgs 19:9,11-13 + Rom 9:1-5 + Mt 14:22-33
August 13, 2017
“After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.”
This Sunday’s First Reading is iconic in the Church’s spiritual tradition. Its most obvious lesson appears in light of the fact that the All-Powerful Lord, Creator of the heavens and the earth, chooses to manifest Himself to Elijah through a tiny, whispering sound rather than by more dramatic means. This lesson encourages us to be mindful of God’s presence amidst what is small, simple, and seemingly insignificant.
Two scriptural contexts frame this lesson, setting the stage for the Gospel passage. Consider first the Lord’s self-revelation to Moses on the same mountain centuries earlier, when He entrusted the Ten Commandments to him (Exodus 19). The Lord did manifest Himself on that occasion through dramatic means: thunder and lightning, fire and a heavy cloud of smoke, and the violent trembling of the whole mountain. The radically different ways in which the Lord revealed Himself to Moses and Elijah offer complementary views of the Lord’s power in all things, great and small.
However, that contrast also draws our attention to the similarity of Moses’ and Elijah’s responses. Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave on Mount Horeb. He recognized the tiny, whispering sound for what it was, and so adhered to the divine warning: “my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and lives” (Ex 33:20). Elijah’s awe-filled reverence for the Lord echoes that of Moses, who on the same mountain had been commanded by the Lord: “Take care not to go up the mountain, or even to touch its base. If anyone touches the mountain he must be put to death” (Ex 19:21). Both Moses and Elijah show their reverence to the Lord Himself, not to the manner of His appearance.
Today’s Gospel passage presents a sharper pair of contrasts. After sending the disciple ahead across the water, Jesus went up on a mountain by Himself to pray. We cannot know what this simple, serene contemplation with God the Father, in the Holy Spirit, was like. But it’s obvious that Jesus is not bound by any command similar to the one given to Moses. Jesus ascends this mountain in order to gaze directly on His Father’s countenance.
Stronger yet is the contrast made by Jesus’ outreach to Peter. At 3:00 a.m., amidst darkness and strong winds, Jesus walks on the water towards His disciples. He announces Himself to them, and emboldens them: “Take courage… be not afraid!” Yet Peter immediately expresses doubt and issues a challenge to Jesus. When Jesus complies and commands Peter to walk to Him on the water, Peter is frightened by the wind and begins to sink. But he does not sink, because Jesus reaches out to him.
God the Father sent His Son into our world to reach out to us and offer reconciliation. On this occasion, this divine Son stretches out a human hand to save Peter from his doubts. Not only does Jesus not forbid His disciples to approach, gaze upon and touch Him. Jesus reaches out to and catches Peter. The compassionate outreach of the God-man here stands in contrast, but not contradiction, to the reverential distance mandated by the Lord in the Old Testament. Of course, these two are the same Lord.
It’s not as if God became more compassionate with the passing of millennia. All the whys and wherefores of salvation history—including the prudence of divine Providence—may perplex us. We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of the Old Testament’s lessons. Each of us sinners needs to approach our Lord with awe-filled reverence. But this reverence ought to be matched by our trust in the Lord’s desire to save us. Jesus stretches out both arms on the Cross to catch us and keep us from sinking within the misery of our sins.