A reflection on the readings for August 13, 2023, the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
On the first day of this year, January 1, 2023, the popular church hymn Amazing Grace turned 250 years old. I mention it today particularly because if we pay attention to the lyrics, we will find a bit of the message of today’s Gospel.
Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, a former slave trader who experienced a religious conversion after almost dying in a shipwreck in 1748. He would go on to become an Anglican priest and an outspoken abolitionist. Newton wrote the lyrics of this hymn for his New Year’s sermon of 1773.
This hymn, on one hand, speaks about the chances of new beginnings in our journey in life:
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see.
On the other hand, it also speaks about the active role and presence that God has in our lives:
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
The readings for today’s liturgy are precisely a powerful reminder of the journey that we all experience in life and how God, in his time, is active and always comes to encounter us.
“Life as a journey” is an image that is used constantly by spiritual writers. It reminds us that we all have an origin and a destination, and that in between all that we will find many adventures — as we all do in any journey. Sometimes those adventures will be sources of blessings and joy; and at other times they will be challenging.
In our first reading, for example, we hear from the journey of the prophet Elijah. If we read a of the few verses that precede today’s reading, we will see that Elijah had just come from a religious contest and had won (cf. 1 Kgs 18:20-40). The test was between Elijah and a group of pagans led by Queen Jezebel. Even though many people converted after Elijah’s victory, Queen Jezebel did not. She was very unhappy that she lost. Consequently, she went after Elijah and tried to kill him.
Elijah had to run away in order to save his life, and this led him to look for God’s presence in his life. His journey became so challenging that he even wished for his own death. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (cf. 1 Kgs 19,1-8). It was then that God sent an angel to offer him food and to push him to continue on his journey. It is at this point where we begin our first reading.
At the beginning of today’s reading, Elijah looks for a sign of God’s presence in his life, but he did not find him in thunder or fire or earthquakes. “A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD but the LORD was not in the wind.” Instead, Elijah finds God in “a tiny whispering sound.” Many times in our journey, we look for God in the extraordinary, the things we want to see. It is common for us to search for God in the things we consider “powerful” like an earthquake, a miracle, a private revelation, fire, and so on.
Although our faith shows us that God has revealed himself in the supernatural at certain times, we need to remember that God comes to encounter us not only in the extraordinary, but also in the ordinary aspects of life. For example, the gift of a new life in a baby is a sign of God’s presence. When we say “thank you, God bless you” to the cashier that helps us at Wal-Mart, that is a sign of God in our life. A single mother who has to work two jobs to support her sons and daughters is a sign of God’s presence in life. A father who makes time to provide for his family while also going to his kid’s baseball games or ballet recitals is another sign of God’s presence in our life. God always comes but sometimes we are the ones who fail to see him.
Similarly, today’s Gospel gives us another image of the journey and the encounter with God that we can all experience. Here, the apostles find themselves in the middle of a storm — just like Elijah in the first reading. This is also just like how we find ourselves in our own storms from time to time — when we have problems with our children, problems in our marriages, economic problems, even problems in our spiritual lives.
When the storm starts, we usually react like Peter in today’s Gospel. As soon as the storm hits, we cry out for God’s intervention: “Lord, if it is you…” help me, guide me, answer me, “command me”… But then we shake, we hesitate. Either the storm is too strong or we don’t get the answer we want from God. Then we lose our sight of him and we begin to drown. But in the end, God comes to encounter us: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
A beautiful image of this message in our times could also be found at World Youth Day, which ended a week ago. Over a million young people started a journey to Lisbon searching for God. Some of them went spiritually committed, while others were more in “vacation mode.” Yet — based on the stories shared by many of the pilgrims and the countless images of the event — we can see that many of these young people found and encountered God by the end of the journey. Whether it was in seeing other people their own age on fire with faith, or in seeing and listening to Pope Francis in person, or in participating in liturgy and worship, God came to encounter them.
That is how life works. Today’s readings push us to start our own journey in life with the assurance that God will come to our encounter: whether in the Church, in our problems, in our sacraments, in our hymns, in the Bible, in our lives. In our journey we will find blessings and adversity, and God will be there and He won’t go away.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come
This grace that brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home…
…“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Image: Mike Lewis. This image was created with the assistance of DALL·E 2.
Father Bernardo Lara is a priest of the Diocese of San Diego and pastor of three Southern California parishes: Sacred Heart and St. Margaret Mary in Brawley and St. Joseph in Westmorland.