THIS Sunday and next, our lections have been chosen to prepare us for Lent. They can help us to discern how to keep the season in a way that bears fruit, so that — in the words of this Sunday’s post-communion prayer — we may be “transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s cross”.
In our Gospel, the disciples are fearful in the face of a violent storm. When he is woken, Jesus rebukes them for their lack of faith, before going on to calm the sea. This miracle, St Cyril of Alexandria said, shows that “creation is obedient to whatever Christ chooses to command.” We are to learn from the response of the waters to his word: “Understanding that all those things that have been brought into existence by God entirely agree with his will, it is our duty to become like the rest of creation.”
Our first reading reveals God’s will for the human race. Uniquely among his creatures, God’s own breath infuses us with life. God brings the animals before the man to name, and then creates woman because “it is not good that the man should be alone.” The man and woman are not ashamed to be naked, before one another and before God. As St John Chrysostom explains, they are “clad in that glory from above which caused them no shame”. It is only when they disobey God’s command that this glory is marred. After the Fall, shame and recrimination will poison their relationship with one another and with their maker.
Throughout scripture, the sea is a metaphor for chaos and rebellion against God, from the “darkness” and “deep” of Genesis to the tumultuous seas described in our psalm. (This explains the otherwise puzzling promise in Revelation 21.1 that in the new creation there will be “no more sea”.)
Across the ages, the chaos unleashed by the Fall is manifest within each human heart. This same chaos is writ large in the lives of the nations — in the violence and oppression inflicted by the mighty on the weak. In calming the storm, Jesus declares his sovereignty over all the principalities and powers that resist God’s loving purposes for his creation.
Susan Gillingham suggests that the “raging of the seas” and “roaring of the waves” in our psalm may be a metaphor for the exile of God’s people in Babylon. Indeed, the Septuagint adds to the title of the psalm “the words of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, from the words of the congregation as they were about to depart” (Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume two). If so, the psalm is a remarkable assertion of Israel’s faith in the Lord in the face of the seemingly overwhelming power of empire.
Our New Testament reading also asserts God’s sovereignty in the face of violence and persecution. The first verse of our psalm is echoed in the last verse of this passage: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” By reminding the members of a persecuted Church that the Roman Emperor and his legions are but creatures, it helps them to remain serene and faithful in the face of the tempest.
It has been suggested that the imagery used in this passage offers a parody of ceremonies practised in the imperial court. In fact, as Joseph Mangina points out, the reverse is true: “From the perspective of the Book of Revelation . . . it is the Roman emperor cult that offers a grotesque parody of the true worship of God” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Revelation). Far from demanding the worship of their peoples, the rulers of the Roman Empire should be kneeling at the feet of the Crucified One.
When Christ bids the storm to cease, he is asserting his sovereignty over these powers and principalities. But — as St Cyril reminds us — Christ is also asserting his authority over our divided and rebellious hearts; for the chaos unleashed by the Fall has entered into the depths of every soul.
As we ponder what disciplines to adopt in Lent, we might consider the ways in which those powers have an unhealthy hold on our imagination and our appetites. What might we take up — or lay down — this Lent, so that Christ might break their grip on us, and help us enter more fully into the triumph of the cross?