Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid

When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

- Mark 6:47-56

This scene seems to me to be strangely put into this gospel - the scenes on the water have a different sort of quality to them than the scenes on land. Perhaps it's because water is so metaphorical in the sense that it is so frequently related to emotion. A stormy sea is always reminiscent of the idea of emotional turmoil. This passage also reminds us of a similar one in the same gospel, when Jesus commanded the storm: "Peace! Be still!"

This scene appears just after Jesus has fed the 5,000 with the loaves and fishes. He has sent his disciples away across the lake, and has gone by himself into solitude on the mountain. Evening falls, and the disciples are still on the lake while he is alone on land. Very early in the morning, Jesus sees them struggling against the wind, and one imagines, choppy waters. The narrative tells us that he intended to pass them by. So, we have an understanding that he is going to be on the other side of the lake when they arrive - as they struggle against the wind, Jesus' walk is faster. The disciples are terrified - they think it is a ghost. Jesus' reply, 'It is I' is literally "I am." It is the same phrase in Greek (ego eimi) that is used to denote an eternal presence in the phrase "Before Moses was, I am." It reflects God's name given to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:14). My study bible notes that this is therefore Christ testifying of himself.

This mystically-tinged vision remains for us the perfect metaphor for our spiritual struggles. Life offers obstacles and difficulties in this struggle. Sometimes we seem to be straining against ourselves, against life itself to follow in this path. And yet into our midst comes this presence of spiritual reality, a timeless "I am." As Jesus goes off in solitude for prayer and communion with the Father, so we pray in the midst of our struggles for this same "I am" to be with us, to make its presence with us in all of our turmoil. Jesus does not pass the disciples by, but gets into the boat with them. Wherever they are, he is there with them - and so, we infer, wherever we are, he is here with us. "I am" is an eternal Presence that is always there for us. Walking on water signifies that this is true no matter where we are and what is happening in our lives. Our emotional states do not prevent us from experiencing this communion and help, which rises above our emotions. There is also the distinct understanding of his omnivision: Jesus' awareness of his disciples' difficulties, and his compassion, his willingness to accompany them in their difficulties and at their own paces, is a metaphor for his presence available to us at any moment in our lives, through prayer.

Jesus gets into the boat and immediately the wind is ceased: the adverse conditions are quieted and calmed. The apostles understand next to nothing: the miracle of the loaves and fishes remains for them a mystery, for we are told "their hearts were hardened." This language that speaks of the heart is the way that ascetical writing indicates knowledge of God: the illuminated heart is the one that understands this presence and grasps spiritual reality. A heart that is hardened, therefore, is one that is not open to grace, wisdom, spiritual presence. In the Eastern church, the heart is known as the "seat of knowledge."

Jesus' popularity when they reach the other side of the lake is an indication that the great mass of the people themselves recognize the capabilities in Jesus. He cannot go anywhere without crowds who seek only the touch of his cloak to heal (once again, mirroring a previous passage, in Mark 5, and possibly because of their knowledge of the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage). But to his disciples there is a special relationship of love which belongs in their heart of hearts. As we deepen this relationship. we go forward in a spiritual understanding of relatedness. This is something which can be with us at all times, which can accompany us through life - hopefully with wisdom and grace, regardless of whatever else we may be feeling. It is not always easy to be a disciple: we must recall that it was Jesus who sent them across the lake. But, he is with them. If we choose to become like his disciples and a part of this family, we also choose to go forward within this level of relatedness, with the one who accompanies us on the journey.

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