JESUS, as Cardinal Robert Sarah observes, never stops setting an example to his followers of the importance of regular silent communion with his heavenly Father (The Power of Silence: Against the dictatorship of noise). Earlier in Matthew 14, before he healed and fed the multitude, Jesus “withdrew . . . in a boat to a deserted place by himself”, but was followed. In this Sunday’s reading, after his miracle, he does withdraw, sending the disciples ahead in the boat, dismissing the crowds, and going up the mountain to pray on his own.
Times of stillness are central to the spiritual life. Cardinal Sarah warns that, without interior silence, human beings can become “empty husks”, driven by the “noise” of their immediate appetites and fears, and their restless egos. In contrast, Jesus’s action flows from his silent communion with the Father. We see its fruit amid the turmoil of Holy Week, when Jesus was able “to choose silence at the most crucial moment in his life, when there was screaming on all sides, covering him with all sorts of lies and calumnies”.
Our Old Testament reading also tells of the silence at the heart of God. It begins with Elijah’s withdrawal to a mountain in the midst of desolation. After his victory over the prophets of Baal at Carmel, he had reason to hope that God’s people would turn back to the path of faithful obedience. But this promising situation has been suddenly and starkly reversed. At the top of the mountain, Elijah cries out to the Lord that “the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword.” He alone is left, and his enemies now seek his life.
God’s encounter with Elijah reveals that “the great forces of nature which once proclaimed God’s presence on Sinai, the same sort of powerful storm experienced by the disciples on the lake, the earthquake that the Psalms depict as a sign of his proximity are, at most, premonitions of God in earthly metaphors — they are not his actual presence” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the Word). The Lord’s “actual presence” is manifest in a deep and mysterious silence.
Out of the silence, the Lord speaks to Elijah. First of all, he asks a question: “What are you doing here?” One of the reasons that silence is challenging — and that it is tempting to evade it — is that it is uncomfortable. God uses it to search our hearts, and to bring to the surface our deepest motivations. In time, however, we move from thinking that it is we who “keep silence” to learn that, in fact, “silence keeps us” (Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest). It is as we rest in this loving and yet searching silence that, like Elijah, we can come to hear God’s will for us.
In our Gospel, it is while Jesus is absent on the mountain that the disciples experience a terrifying storm. They are “battered by the waves” and “far from the land”. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the sea is “wild and untameable, a symbol of chaos, darkness, and evil that threatened” (Anna Case-Winters, Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew). In the miracle that follows, Jesus’s interior tranquility leads on to external peace. He is able to walk across these threatening waves without being diverted or harmed, and then stills them completely.
Peter’s reaction to Jesus’s appearance manifests a characteristic mixture of faith and doubt. The disciple wants to draw close to his Lord, but, in the face of the wind and storms, he loses confidence. Anna Case-Winters explains that the verb translated as “doubt” in verse 31 of the passage refers to more than intellectual questioning: it is “personal confusion or uncertainty that prevents action or commitment”.
As Peter begins to sink, he cries out “Lord, save me.” Jesus “immediately” holds out his hand and saves him. For Peter, this is a powerful experience of the truth of the promise that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2.32).
Paul quotes this prophecy in our epistle, as he challenges the Roman Christians to spread the Good News to others. Words as well as silence are an essential component of Christian witness — as we encourage people to move beyond the “dictatorship of noise” to discover for themselves the peace of Jesus Christ.