The God of the Old Testament was definitely the God of nature. The opening verses of the Book of Genesis are probably a choral presentation chanted during the temple liturgies celebrating God as the author of the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon as well as the plants and the animals. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures was very much in charge of his universe. Natural wonders continue throughout the pages of the ancient Biblical text. The plagues visited on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna found daily in the wilderness, the quenching water spilling from the rock, the quail quieting the complaints of the wandering Hebrew nation, the thunder, lightning and clouds witnessed at Sinai – each of these phenomena was appreciated by the Jews as coming directly from the hand of God. He was indeed the God of nature.
The psalmist many times sings the praises of God who is quite the master of his universe. “You still the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves,” acclaims Psalm 65. The 89th Psalm declares, “You rule the raging sea; you still its swelling waves.” Again Psalm 107 instructs the reader, “He hushed the storm to silence, the waves of the sea were stilled. They rejoiced that the sea grew calm, that God brought them to the harbor they longed for.” In the first reading at Mass this coming Sunday, God the Father reassures the distressed Job that God is still quite capable of firmly handling nature. “Who sets limits to the boundaries of the sea?” God asks Job. “Who determines how far up the shore the waves will venture?” God demands of his uneasy listener.
It is within this rich context of God as ruler of the earth and master of the oceans that the familiar Gospel passage in which Jesus calms the storm at sea must be understood and appreciated. The disciples encountered more than a stiff breeze: “A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up.” Remember that these disciples were seasoned fishermen. This was not the first tempest they had confronted. Yet clearly there was panic in their voices: ““Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
Quite surprisingly Jesus has to be awakened from a sound sleep: “Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion.” The mention of the cushion is no doubt the recollection of an eyewitness. Then, from a sound sleep, Jesus displays his own mastery over nature: “He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm.” Perhaps here the disciples might have recalled the opening verses of the Book of Genesis when God the Father begins to bring order and calm to the chaotic primordial universe: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind was sweeping over the waters…” Understandably the disciples were astounded at Jesus’ power. “They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” Previous to this event in St. Mark’s Gospel account, Jesus had worked some individual healings and exorcisms. No doubt these kindhearted miracles had elicited some wonder among the disciples. But this display of Jesus’ dominance over the earth’s wider natural environment was indeed truly startling. Even Jesus remarks on their alarm, “Why are you terrified?”
It is difficult after two thousand years of Christian belief to comprehend what a challenge it was for Jesus’ first followers to grasp that they were encountering God in a man. The ancient Jews had such respect, such reverence, for God that they would not even pronounce his Name. The High Priest was allowed into the Temple’s special chamber for the Presence of God only once in the year. Now to grasp that God was their fellow traveler on a fishing boat, that God might occasionally take a nap, that God was their companion, friend and colleague was indeed an act of great courage as well as an act of supernatural faith. Jesus’ own question to his naïve disciples almost seems a bit pre-mature: “Do you not yet have faith?” Only Jesus’ death and resurrection and his sending of the Holy Spirit will finally convince them – and later generations as well – that Jesus Christ truly is God in a man.