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Seven years ago hurricane Katrina began its devastating assault on New Orleans. Yesterday tropical storm Isaac (downgraded from a hurricane) continued to hover over that same city and the surrounding parishes. In and directly around the city of New Orleans, the levees held. In outlying areas, they did not. Plaquemines Parish has been swamped, quite literally. Last night their mayor declared that the damage exceeded that caused by Katrina. Homes have been destroyed, people have been rescued from rooftops, and more than half a million are without power.
The images on TV call to mind biblical stories, words of wisdom, and exhortations of all sorts—from Noah’s ark to Jericho under siege to the lament psalms to Jesus’ presence in the storm. It is this latter narrative, as told in Mark 4, that I find myself returning to as I watch from afar.
In this story, Jesus’ disciples not only battle raging waters and whipping winds, but they also battle their silent, sleeping Lord. After an intense day of healing and teaching, Jesus and his disciples head out for a bit of respite on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus climbs in, stumbles toward the back, finds a cushion, and falls fast asleep. As the disciples relax and try to rest a bit themselves, a storm arises suddenly on the water. This was no ordinary wind or rain storm. The Greek words indicate that there was a violent upheaval like an earthquake. It was a cyclonic gust that came down from the mountains and violently plundered the sea.
The storm raged on and on. The waves beat against the boat, causing it to sway, rise and crash back into the water. The disciples were thrown across the deck like puppets dangling from the strings of a capricious puppeteer. Their vision was completed impaired by the torrential downpour. They were disoriented, not knowing which way was up or down, right or left. Then the boat–their refuge, their place of peace and rest–began to sink.
On the brink of catastrophe, Jesus was sleeping…soundly. I can only imagine the incredulity of his disciples. Doesn’t he know that their lives are in mortal danger? Has he no concern for their safety, sustenance, and well-being? Doesn’t it matter to him if they live or die?
Yesterday, today, and in the days and years to come, Isaac and its aftereffects will be felt and suffered by many. For the people of Plaquemines Parish, it’s as though the storm just keeps raging on. Their boat is going down, and much that is dear to them is going down with it. How could this be? Where is God?
Jesus eventually awoke to the panicked, accusatory cry of his disciples. God in Jesus Christ saw his beloved standing over him, felt the water pouring off of them onto him, sensed the violent thrashing of their boat. He was not distant from them. The Incarnate Son of God was in their predicament, for he has entered fully into the human situation. And he was in their suffering and helplessness precisely to liberate them from it. Jesus is not only God-with-us but also God-for-us. He arose from his slumber, walked to the front of their sinking boat, and spoke three words that silenced the storm and rescued them all from the brink of destruction.
This story of Jesus’ calming the storm prefigures another story, the central story of the Gospel, and the definitive story for all our lives. Jesus’ slumber in the boat foreshadows another slumber and a descent of another kind – his death, burial, and descent into hell. His silence points toward the silence of the Word of God on Holy Saturday, the day when God did not speak, the day when God endured the annihilation of hell and overcame it. So, too, Jesus’ awaking, speaking, and silencing of the storm prefigures his resurrection and the annihilation of sin, suffering, and death. “It is finished,” cried Jesus. Yet we do not see this manifest fully (or sometimes at all) in the here-and-now.
Like his slumber on that boat, God seems to be silent now, too. The waves keep coming. Where is Jesus now? He is in flood, just as he was in the boat. Now he shares in the fear and loss of an entire community. He is in the shock and the lament, because he is God-with-us, God-with- Plaquemines Parish, God-with-all those who suffer tragedy and ruin.
We, the church, the body of Christ, are there, too, whether we realize it or not. We are not ultimately separate from those who are ravaged by sin and suffering. We are called into solidarity with them. We are invited to follow like Jesus’ disciples followed him, crying out with protest, intercession, lament, and groans too deep for words until God cries out and silences all this storm and all others. We are also called to act, however we can, for faith without works is dead.