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This Sunday’s Gospel passage, recounting Jesus’ calming of the sea, evokes three biblical motifs: storms, the terror of sailors at sea and the theme of sleep.

Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mk 4:38)

Liturgical day
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Jb 38:1-11, Ps 107, 2 Cor 5:14-17, Mk 4:35-41

Can you hear Jesus’ voice through the storms of life?

How does the presence of God reveal itself to your community during hardship?

Do you have the faith that allows you to feel calm during the storm of this coming week?

Storms are powerful and overwhelming forces of nature. It is no wonder that this image appears in Scripture to evoke something “out of the ordinary.” In the first reading, the stormwind represents the presence of God speaking to a distressed Job. “The Lord addressed Job out of the storm” (Jb 38:1). This is a clear contrast with this Sunday’s Gospel in which a storm represents an opponent of God. Storms can also be used as instruments of the divine hand, as in the case of the parable of Jonah who is caught in a storm while trying to escape his mission. In each of these examples, the storm points to a moment of divine revelation, sometimes revealing God’s desired plan or else revealing the divine presence itself. It makes sense that when Jesus stills the storm, he also reveals a glimpse of his divine nature. This is evident from the disciples’ shocked reaction, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” (Mk 4:41).

The terror of sailors at sea is also a biblical motif. It appears in this Sunday’s Gospel passage, in which the frightened disciples are tossed about by the waves. These fisherman-turned-disciples are severely distressed over the “violent squall” that was filling the boat with water. They wake Jesus from sleep and reprimand him: “Teacher, do you not care?” (Mk 4:38). Perhaps the author of this scene desires the reader to contemplate this question as it has been asked by every generation of believers. What is striking about the whole set up of this scene is how much it parallels the story of Jonah at sea. Jonah has often been seen as an antitype of Jesus. Jonah is caught in a storm and the sailors with him are frightened to death. In that story, Jonah is also asleep while the boat is beginning to sink. Jonah calms the sea with the reluctant sacrifice of his life, while Jesus calms the sea with his voice. “Quiet! Be still! The wind ceased and there was great calm” (Mk 4:39). 

The third common biblical motif found in this Sunday’s Gospel passage is sleep. Jesus was deeply asleep; Mark even notes the cushion on which he rested. In last Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus presented a parable in which the kingdom of God grows of itself silently while one “sleeps” during the night (Mk 4:27). Here the image is positive. Sometimes the image of sleeping is neutral or a figure of speech implying death. In the story of the girl who died, for example, but whom Jesus brought back to life, Jesus exclaims “Why this commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep” (Mk 5:39). There are other times, however, where sleep may indicate spiritual indolence or fatigue, as when Jesus’ closest disciples can hardly stay awake while their teacher-messiah undergoes his agony in the garden (Mk 14:37-41).

How should one read and interpret Jesus fast asleep while the boat is sinking? One interpretation is to recognize the human element of needed rest. Jesus might actually be tired from his demanding mission that never slows down. At a deeper level, Jesus’ sleep and the other motifs of this Gospel passage offer an explicit contrast to the narrative of Jonah. Unlike the ancient prophet, Jesus does indeed care about the outcome. What Jesus asked of his disciples he is asking of us today, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” (Mk 4:40). By Mark’s reckoning, the disciples will wrestle with Jesus’ teaching as long as their teacher remains with them. They will continue to struggle with their faith until they finally meet the resurrected Jesus, a struggle which next Sunday’s reading will highlight. May this Sunday’s Gospel passage call us as Christ called the disciples to greater faith, and inspire us to renewed zeal and belief.      

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