Job 38.1–11; Psalm 107.1–3, 23–32; 2 Corinthians 6.1–13; Mark 4.35–end
“THE Old Testament is leery of the threat of the sea as a vehicle for chaos and disorder” (Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., New Cambridge Bible Commentary: Psalms). It is a symbol of the unruly elements (Genesis 1.1) and the home of Leviathan, the “twisting serpent” (Isaiah 27.1).
In our first reading, the sea is described as something on which God sets “bounds” and “bars” and “doors”. St John Chrysostom writes that the sea “fights against God’s commandments”, and yet “his commandment rules it everywhere.” The sea is “restless and rises from inside, but without the strength to exceed its limits, its restlessness proclaims the power of God” (Commentary on Job).
The Revelation of John draws on this same understanding when it depicts the sea as the home of “the beast” (13.1), which is why, in John’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth, we are told that “the sea was no more” (21.1).
Psalm 107 celebrates four examples of God’s deliverance of his people; the last example is the stilling of a storm. The narrative in this Sunday’s readings echoes the pattern of the psalm: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were calmed.”
Jesus’s calming of the storm is an affirmation of his divinity, as he is shown to share in God’s authority over the sea. In the face of the storm, he does not need to cry out in prayer, but addresses the storm directly. Mark chooses the same verb, “rebuke”, which he used in earlier chapters to describe Jesus’s casting out of evil spirits (Mary Healy, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Mark). The stilling of the storm exemplifies his victory over all the forces that diminish God’s creatures and bring disorder to creation.
While Jesus is sovereign over the tempestuous elements, the disciples find him “in the stern, asleep on the cushion”, in the midst of the storm. They are incredulous, and attempt to rebuke him for his lack of care. But his sleep is one of confidence, not indifference.
Andrew Bishop describes the sleep of Christ in the boat as offering us a paradigm of “hallowed sleep: in other words, sleep that is intentionally open to God; is blessed by God; and is offered to God” (Theosomnia: A Christian theology of sleep). Jesus’s ability to rest in God in a world of chaos and disorder is offered to his disciples as a model for their lives. Such sleep is described in many of the psalms, most notably those used at compline.
If humans were reliant on our strength alone, we would be wholly vulnerable when we slept. In our slumber, we are called to cease activity and relinquish control. Our fear of doing this is expressed in the Office hymn for compline, in which God is asked to defend his children from “ill dreams” and “nightly fears and fantasies”.
In the boat, Jesus’s rest shows that he is unafraid of either the “chaos and disorder” of the sea or of the world of sleep. As Healy observes, Jesus “exemplifies the perfect trust in God” which is often signified in the Old Testament by untroubled sleep (e.g. Job 11.18 and Psalm 4.9).
It is precisely because he knows when to rest — both in his sleep, and in the times when he takes himself away to pray in solitude — that Jesus is able to be fully present to those around him when he is engaged in ministry. When we forget that the work of salvation is God’s, and get caught up in anxious activity, we cannot be fully present to our neighbours.
Jesus’s example commends a commitment to rest and retreat to those who follow him. But, as Bishop reminds us, “Sleep, like grace, cannot be willed but can only be received as a gift.” In our epistle, Paul lists “sleepless nights” among the persecutions and trials that he has endured. In following Jesus, we, too, may face the harder task of resting in God, even when sleep and retreat are unavailable. Those are moments to pray, as Jesus did at the moment when the forces of chaos seem to have overwhelmed him: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23.46).