When Pope Francis prayed alone, and eloquently, in St. Peter’s Square last month for deliverance from the coronavirus pandemic, he read a passage from the Gospel of St. Mark. It was the account of the storm on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus and the Apostles were in a boat. Jesus had preached to a large crowd that day, and later explained his parables to the Apostles. It was evening when they set sail, and Jesus fell asleep. When the storm hit, the boat began to take on water. The Apostles were terrified. They woke Jesus and asked, no doubt shouting frantically over the wind, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” Mark writes that Jesus awoke and “rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ ” Then he asked the Apostles, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” The Apostles did not answer the question, but they were struck with awe, and they said to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Being of a nervous turn of mind myself, I can imagine the Apostles’ terror, which must have grown wilder by the minute, along with the wind and waves. Had I been in that boat, I would have been the first to stumble back to the stern and shout to Jesus, “Wake up! Don’t you care about us?”
I love one small detail that Mark includes: Jesus was asleep on a cushion. That might seem trivial, but it’s important to me. When I first heard this Gospel passage as a little girl, I wondered how Jesus could possibly be asleep in the boat. I had no idea what the Apostles’ fishing boats looked like; the only boats I knew about were the rowboats I had ridden in while on vacation at lakes in upstate New York. Those boats had two or three planks for seats, and I couldn’t imagine how Jesus could be comfortable enough to fall asleep on a hard piece of wood. Mark’s mention of a cushion made sense to me; maybe the Lord leaned over and laid his head on it. However he rested, at least there was something soft between him and the hard wood.
One other detail stands out for me: According to Mark, it was only after Jesus had stilled the wind and the sea that he rebuked the Apostles with questions: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” He didn’t ask them for a profession of faith first; he didn’t say, “I’ll save you if you believe I can.” He acted first, and in calming the winds and waves he calmed the Apostles. Only then did he question them about their faith.
We are in the midst of a frightening storm right now. The coronavirus pandemic is causing untold suffering for the sick and the dying, and their families and friends. Heroic medical professionals and support personnel are working well past the point of exhaustion to treat and save as many as they can. All of us are trying to cope with a new way of life and unfamiliar limitations on what we can buy and do. No one knows how long it will continue.
How do we get through it? Maybe we can find help in that passage from St. Mark. We can confront our fears with the kind of faith that Jesus sought in the Apostles: the faith that God controls his creation and will strengthen us and bring us through the dangers that threaten us.
I also think that like Jesus, we need a cushion, something to soften the hard surface of this test of faith. We need prayer: our personal prayers, our traditional prayers, the Rosary. Televised Masses are a great help in keeping us united in prayer until we can safely gather in church.
We also need the cushion of connecting with one another through phone calls, emails, notes, cards—any way we can while keeping six feet apart.
Like the Apostles in the boat, we’ll make it to shore. Jesus isn’t sleeping. He’s steering.