Ninteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Yesterday was the seventeenth anniversary of my ordination as a priest. In gratitude for my vocation, I offered Mass in our little rectory chapel. I was getting things set up when I noticed that the sanctuary candle was getting pretty low. As I reached the Offertory of the Mass, it appeared that the candle had gone out. Making a mental note to replace it when I’d finished, I noticed the red glass beginning to glow again: the flame had returned, and was now rather bright. Then it shrank down again to almost nothing. This pattern of rise and fall continued through the rest of Mass, until the candle finally burned out for good as I said a few prayers of thanksgiving afterward.
I don’t believe that what I witnessed was anything miraculous—in fact, I’m quite sure it was entirely due to natural causes. But I’m also quite sure it was meant as a message: a metaphor for my life and ministry as a priest these last seventeen years. It’s certainly had its ups and downs: times when the light of Christ has burned brightly, seen by me and through me; times when the light’s been dim, and fears arise that it’s going out…but (praise God!) it never does.
This came together for me with this Sunday’s gospel story of Peter walking with Jesus on the water. The stories about St. Peter are quite comforting not only to us priests, but to all followers of Jesus, because he’s so much like the rest of us. (You could say we’re all in the same boat.) One of the Lord’s first priests and our first Pope had many shining moments where he clearly “gets it,” but also times when he falls—even falls hard. And yet Jesus, though he must correct him, never gives up on Peter—and likewise, Peter never gives up on Jesus.
Did you notice in our gospel reading what precisely caused Peter to slip beneath the water? It was “when he saw how strong the wind was….” If Peter’s eyes were on the storm, if he was looking at the waves, what couldn’t he see? Peter had stopped looking at Jesus. It’s only when he takes his eyes off of the Lord that things start to fall apart. Isn’t that always the case? I know it is for me! When Jesus is no longer the very center of my attention, when I get distracted or discouraged or doubting—whether due to a challenging situation that I must face or my own weakness and sin—that’s when the flame burns low, that’s when I start going under. But experience has also taught me that when I do keep Jesus in sight, when he remains at the heart of who I am and whatever I’m doing, then no gust of wind can blow out the fire, no swell of the waves drag me down.
My home church in Plattsburgh, where I celebrated my first Mass seventeen years ago today, is named for St. Peter. And in the sanctuary, right next to the altar, is a larger than life mural of the scene from this Sunday’s gospel. Peter is half submerged, wild-eyed and windswept, with his boat rocking behind him. His muscular arms are reaching up for help: his own strength cannot save him now. And walking toward him is Jesus—cool as a cucumber, with peace in his eyes and not a hair out of place. (Have you ever noticed that? How, regardless of what he’s doing, Jesus is always pictured with perfect hair?)
Maybe as I offered my first Mass I should have paid a bit more attention to the painting over my left shoulder. But at least I can now recognize what the Lord is saying through that piece of art, placed so close to the altar and the tabernacle. At Mass I, as a priest, experience something so similar to Peter on the sea: something far beyond the abilities of my human nature takes place only because of divine grace as, in my hands, bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Christ. Is that not the meaning of the red sanctuary candle? That God is here with us, and remains with us always? And through all the circumstances of life? Its light repeats to us the words of Jesus: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” When times get tough, we—like Peter—say to ourselves, “I can’t do this!” But if we’re listening carefully through the wind and the waves, we can hear Jesus whispering, “You’re absolutely right: you cannot do this…by yourself, anyway. But I can do it. And together, we will do it.” Even if he doesn’t calm the raging storm, Jesus remains right there to walk us straight through, unharmed.
And so I ask you to pray for me, and to pray for all priests, that we will remain faithful: that we’ll rise a whole lot more than we fall. And pray, too, for vocations to the priesthood, that the People of God will never be left wanting for the Eucharist, which is the real presence of God in our midst: the strong Savior who is always ready to quiet our fears, to rekindle our faith, and to lift us up.