The calming of the storm: sermon on the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

“When he entered into the boat, his disciples followed him.”

The Venerable Bede, summing up a tradition that had come down to him from the earliest times, tells us that Holy Scripture has four main senses. These are the literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical senses of Scripture. St Thomas Aquinas says that each episode in the Gospels may be interpreted in all of these four ways. Today’s short passage from St Matthew’s Gospel, which relates the calming of the storm, allows us to illustrate this principle.

First, let us consider the literal sense of this episode. One question that comes to mind, if we stay with the historical event itself, is in what way the disciples showed themselves to be men of little faith? It does not seem to be a lack faith to think it possible that one might be drowned, when a great storm overtakes a small boat. The immediate successor of St Dominic at the head of the Order of Preachers, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, was drowned in a ship off the coast of the Holy Land. A certain hermit was troubled when he heard the news, thinking it strange that a man of God should die in such a way, and wondering whether Blessed Jordan’s reputation for sanctity had been undeserved. The hermit was comforted some time later, when he had a vision of the saint appearing to him in glory. 

So, it is not necessarily a sign of lacking faith to think that one may be drowned, since even saints have died in this way. Nor does it seem to evince a lack of faith, if one prays to be saved from drowning. The Church, in her litanies, bids us pray to be delivered “from a sudden and unprovided death”. The disciples in the boat with our Lord may have been aware that they were not yet ready to leave this world, and their desire to stay with Him and learn more from Him was praiseworthy. So, in what way were they lacking faith? I think it must be because they supposed that Christ could not help them unless they woke Him and told Him what was happening. If they had already possessed a firm belief in His divinity, they would not have supposed this. They would have realised that just as the Father knows what we need before we ask Him, so does the Son.

Next, we can think about the allegorical sense of this episode. Here, we see the boat of the disciples as a symbol of the Church. The very word for “ship” in Latin — navis — gives us the word “nave”, as in the nave of a church. The disciples are in their boat, when a great tempest arises in the sea. This makes us think of troubles coming upon the Church. Nor does the trouble remain purely external, as it would in a persecution where all the faithful remain firm. No, St Matthew tells us that the boat was covered with waves. The water is inside the boat, whenever very many Catholics are influenced by worldly thinking or immoral practices coming into the Church from outside. And He, Jesus, was asleep. Just as a sleeping man is not concerned with what is going on around him, and gives no sign that he is even aware of it, so our Lord does not immediately intervene in a visible and dramatic way to solve the problems in His Church. He does not usually make His voice heard in the heavens when some falsehood is making progress among His people, nor does He cause all those who are propagating it to die before their time. In this sense, He appears to be asleep. “Sitting thou didst speak against thy brother,” the Lord says in the psalms, “and didst lay a scandal against thy mother’s son: these things hast thou done, and I was silent” (Ps 49:20–21a).

In such circumstances, it is no lack of faith to pray to Christ to help His Church. He wants us to pray for this. Where we would be lacking faith would be if we imagined that we needed to draw His attention to the water in the boat, as if He were less interested than we in the health of His Church. No, by all means let us pray for the Church and pray with urgency, but never with the frantic desperation that the disciples showed in this gospel. 

Thirdly, we have what is called the moral sense of Scripture. By this sense, we interpret a passage as symbolising not the whole Church, but rather an individual soul. This is possible, because each soul is like a miniature Church, and our Lord is the bridegroom of the soul as He is of His Church. Reading, then, this gospel in its moral sense, we see the boat as an image of the baptised soul. She is making her way across the sea of this world, and the waves are various kinds of temptation. The different disciples can be compared to her knowledge of the different truths of the faith, that have come to us from the disciples. More than this, Christ Himself is within her; as St Paul says to the Galatians, “Know you not your own selves, that Christ Jesus is in you?” Yet, in the time of trial, it is as if He were asleep, since the soul feels that she is left to her own strength. We read of such times, for example, in the lives of St Anthony of the desert, or St Catherine of Siena. But in reality, it is not so. When St Anthony said to our Lord, after having been assailed by the demons, “Where were you?” he heard a voice saying, “Anthony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight; and since you endured, and were not defeated, I will always be your support, and I will make your name known everywhere.” Christ was keeping as good a care of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee when He was still sleeping as when He was awake. Once more, this does not mean that we should not pray for help in time of trial, but that we should pray with the firm belief that He knows our needs far better than we know them ourselves.

This leaves the fourth and final sense of Scripture, signified by the rare word “anagogical”. This word literally means “leading on high” and refers to the fact that what Christ did on earth for the disciples foreshadows the way in which He leads His Church upwards into glory. Let us think again of the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The Church has known many storms over the centuries: many heresies and scandals, which have caused the faithful to cry out, “We perish.” But, with divine help, she has overcome them, and continued on her way. Furthermore, we learn from Scripture to expect one great storm, the greatest of all, about which our Lord says, “There shall be tribulation such as hath not been from the beginning of the world until now, neither shall be.” And though a part of the Church is already glorious, the whole Church will not enter her glory except by passing through this great storm. What will our Lord do then?

“Then rising up, he commanded the winds, and the sea, and there came a great calm. But the men wondered, saying: What manner of man is this, for the winds and the sea obey him?”

Whatever the nature of this last and greatest storm, our Lord will calm it, as He will have calmed all the previous ones, commanding the demons who perhaps were already stirring up the elements troubling the boat on the Sea of Galilee, and who certainly incite human beings to harm the Church. And those who enter into glory on the last day will say: “What manner of man is this?” for although the blessed see God as He is — Three-in-One — and they see Jesus Christ, true God and true man, nevertheless they can never fully comprehend what they see. So it is as if they repeat the words, “What manner of man is this?” and remain caught up in loving wonder, not for a time only, but throughout eternity.