The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
I Kings 19:9,11-13  +  Romans 9:1-5  +  Matthew 14:22-33

After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.

references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church cited for this Sunday by the Vatican’s Homiletic Directory:

CCC 164: faith experiences testing
CCC 272-274: only faith can follow mysterious ways of providence
CCC 671-672: in difficult times, cultivate trust that all is subject to Christ
CCC 56-64, 121-122, 218-219: history of covenants; God’s love for Israel
CCC 839-840: the Church’s relationship to the Jewish people

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.

This scriptural lesson can be compared to two other passages of Scripture.  Making these comparisons will set the stage for Sunday’s Gospel Reading.  Consider first the Lord’s self-revelation to Moses centuries earlier on the same mountain where He later appeared to Elijah.  It was on this occasion in Exodus 19 that the Lord entrusted the Ten Commandments to Moses.  The Lord did manifest Himself at that time 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 demands that we give our attention also to the similarity of the responses of Moses and Elijah to the Lord’s self-revelation.  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” [Exodus 33:20].  Elijah’s awe-filled reverence of the Lord echoes the reverence 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” [Exodus 19:21].  Both Moses and Elijah give their attention to the Lord Himself, not to the manner of His appearance.

Sunday’s Gospel Reading presents a sharper pair of contrasts.  After sending the disciples 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 for Jesus.  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, through His humanity, in the fullness of His divinity.

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 Peter does not end up sinking, for Jesus reaches out to him.  In this, Peter symbolizes each of us.

God the Father sent His Son into our world to reach out to each of us and to offer reconciliation for our sins.  On the occasion heard in Sunday’s Gospel Reading, 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 one and 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 should not underestimate the significance of the Old Testament’s lessons.  Each of us sinners needs to approach our Lord with awe-filled reverence.  However, this reverence ought to be matched by our trust in the Lord’s desire to save us.  This desire has been fulfilled through the Incarnation of God the Son.  Jesus stretches out both arms on the Cross to catch us and keep us from sinking within the misery of our sins and into the depths of eternal death.

Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston (1779–1843)