21 Jun 2021

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 20 June 2021

It’s blowing a gale, the sea is wild, the waves breaking over, the boat filling with water (Mk 4:35-41). Where’s Jesus when you need Him? Sound asleep…

Well, it had been a heavy day. Like any good Jew He’d gone to synagogue that Saturday morning. He’d caused a sensation by healing someone on the Day of Rest (Mk 2:23-3:6). He retreated to Peter’s place for lunch, with the crowd hotly in pursuit (Mk 3:19-34; cf. 1:29; 2:1). Then He spent the afternoon by the lakeside, healing the sick, exorcising demons, telling stories, teaching the crowd from a boat (Mk 3:7-12; 4:1-34). He gave His inner circle a private tutorial on interpreting parables. After a day like that, it’s no wonder He collapsed at the back of the boat in sheer exhaustion! But His placid confidence may also speak to the calm of His heart and trust in providence…

If Jesus’ heart was calm and trusting, how about the hearts of His newly appointed apostles (Mk 3:14-15)? We don’t know why Jesus directed them to set sail after dusk. Was it to escape the crowd? Did He have somewhere to be in the morning? Or was the fishing better at night? Whatever the reason, the lads didn’t expect a cyclone. But Jesus did, and like any crisis the storm will test and teach. We will now get to see what the Twelve are made of.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1596) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

: For one thing, they feel deeply confused, completely lost, ‘all at sea’. In the howling storm they’re terrified: “Master, we’re sinking,” they cry out, stirring the Lord. “Why so scared, you cowards?” He responds.

If they lack courage they also lack faith: “Master, don’t you care?” they whine. “How is it you boys have so little faith?” He replies. They’re frightened and faithless so He calms the storm. Now they are agog: all they can say is “Who is this guy?”

So we learn they are frightened, faithless, flabbergasted. They’re not alone in that. For many people this story speaks to their own situation at one time or another, when hard things come our way,  when we feel we are drowning, when God seems absent or unconcerned. “Have faith,” Jesus says to His first disciples and to us, “I’m close. I care. Cry out to Me and I will quieten the storms that surround you.”

That reading of today’s Gospel makes a lot of sense. But St Augustine suggests a different way of approaching it. “Each one’s heart is a sailing boat,” he tells us,[1] sometimes in heavy weather. But the real storm comes not from outside but from within. Someone or something provokes our anger, lust or envy, or perhaps it’s been seething within us for a long while. We struggle not to be consumed by such negative emotions, not to lash out in retaliation, for as Augustine points out, “The joy of revenge is shipwreck.” On this reading it’s not that an exhausted Christ has failed to notice our struggles: it is we who have marginalised Christ, relegating Him to oblivion in the back of our boat, while giving our emotions free rein to steer us in hazardous seas. But without Christ as pilot, the temptations of the world, the toils of life or the passions within overwhelm us. We sink beneath the waves. “Remember Him, then,” Augustine tells us, “rouse Him, let Him keep watch within you, and pay heed to Him.”

Yet if the lads are frightened, faithless, flabbergasted by what’s going on around them, or consumed by anger, ache or appetite within, why does Jesus rebuke them also, after rebuking the storm? If their faith is too small that’s His fault, surely, since faith is His gift. And at least they’ve joined His boat and shown enough faith to turn to Him when they need to be saved…

But it’s not enough – not enough to put our hand up when we want something from God. Friendship is more than that. A real relationship with God surely means we don’t wait till we’re drowning to contact Him. And when we do call upon Him, we should trust in Him rather than indulging our anxieties. And if we do experience His presence we surely don’t need to keep asking “Who is this that commands the winds and sea?” The apostles had all heard the Word of God, including our first reading from the Book of Job, read perhaps that very day in the synagogue (Job 38:1-,8-11). It described a cosmic Lord who speaks from the heart of the storm. Earlier that day they’d witnessed that Lord working miracles and teaching with authority. With the parable of the seed He’d taught them to let the Word of God take root, deep in their souls, so their faith would resist the winds of Satan, storms of persecution, cyclones of desire. But here they are, only hours later, and at the first sign of trouble they panic. The seed of their faith blows away, or sprouts then withers, or is choked by what Jesus called “the cares of the world, the lure of wealth, the lust for other things” (Mk 4:1-20). When they cry out to Him in the boat it’s not a cry of faith – or they would not be so astonished when He saves them. Theirs are cries not of conviction, but of desperation only.

Eugène Delacroix, Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1854), Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Christ rebukes them because, even after hearing the Word of God from Job and from Himself, even after witnessing all the healings and teachings, even after seeing Him calm the storms outside and within, still they doubted. They had given themselves to the storm, not to its Master. We too, at times, let ourselves be overcome by winds of fortune or gales within us. We too consign Christ to the back of our soul-boats so that we might steer.

Yet frightened, faithless, flabbergasted as they are, consumed by appetite, anger and ache, the cries of the disciples are still heard, still answered. We, too, can cry out to Christ in our need. We know He is our Saviour and worthy of all praise. We can turn around and ask Him to take charge, and not just when things are hard but always, in all we do, in tempest or in gentle breeze.

In our Epistle Paul says, “From now on we do not judge anyone by the standards of the flesh… No, in Christ they are a new creation… living no longer for themselves but for others” (2Cor 5:14-17). How true this is of today’s Dempsey medallists. For decades they’ve served in parish or chaplaincy, Catholic club, altar society, women’s or men’s group, Vinnies conference, CCD or rosary troop. They’ve been club director or group coordinator; sacristan, warden, acolyte or communion minister; parish secretary, organiser of volunteers or sacramental co-ordinator; catechist, musician, piety stall manager; life and justice activist, fundraiser, website manager or Mr fix-it. Though we celebrate their achievements, we can be sure each has weathered their fair share of storms, maybe even come close to shipwreck at times. Yet they’ve cried out to God for help and experienced His saving action in their lives. They demonstrate that none of us need be flotsam or jetsam, debris carried by wind and wave: we can be the Barque of Peter, with Christ aboard, as our compass and captain, and so safe and sound.

[1] St. Augustine, Sermons, 63, 1-3

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the Solemn Mass of the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time. It is a pleasure to be presenting the Dempsey Medal today for outstanding service in the Archdiocese of Sydney, especially given that COVID restrictions precluded my doing so last year. The award commemorates James Dempsey, a leading Catholic layman of the convict period and contributor to our first cathedral. The Dempsey home was a place of prayer and catechesis for the Catholics of the colony before there was a church, priest or sacraments. Dempsey also accompanied condemned prisoners to the gallows and prayed with them.

Below the stained glass of the Empty Tomb on the West wall of this cathedral is told the story of a consecrated host left behind by a priest and venerated in the Dempsey household, the Davis cottage, or both. Today we honour a new generation of such Catholic heroes of Sydney, and so I welcome this year’s medal recipients, their families, friends and fellow parishioners. To everyone present, whether physically or by livestream, a very warm welcome!