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When God sleeps

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On a trip to Tokyo years ago, my friends and I visited a Shinto shrine in the heart of the city. Our tour-guide explained the local custom: To pray in the temple, the locals believed that you had to clap twice to wake up the god who lived there. At the time, I laughed to myself and thought, "What good is a God who takes naps? Who wants a deity who’s asleep at the switch?" 

It wasn’t until later in the day in prayer that I remembered this Sunday’s Gospel. In Mark 4:25-41, the disciples, seasoned fishermen and sailors that they are, get thrashed by a storm in the boat to the point of fearing for their lives. Meanwhile, Jesus naps peacefully on a cushion. It’s only when they wake him screaming "Mayday!" that he rebukes their fear and the storm, calming all instantly. Yet the question lingers: Doesn’t it often seem like God is asleep in our lives, too?

On display in this passage, we see a simple truth: Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Divinity that has sovereign command over the elements and complete tranquil rest in the peace of the Father. But also, humanity that takes cat naps after a long day of preaching.

Practically, it gives us an outlined answer to the question of whether God is asleep or not. God enters human life without ever losing his divinity, but sometimes his majesty and power are extremely veiled within the ordinariness of our humanity. At no moment of our story does God lose control, even with Jesus asleep. Though it certainly seems bleak, the disciples are ultimately in no greater or lesser danger of sinking before or after the storm is calmed. God is present with them in the boat and without. He is fully human and fully divine, loving them and caring for their souls. The truth is not so much that we need to wake God up, but rather we need to wake ourselves up to the reality of who God is.

Here in this moment of storm-at-sea, we also glimpse a foreshadowing of the Lord’s passion: the winds and waves of chaos, the demonic and sin, seem to hold sway over the little boat, a symbol of the church and world. Jesus lies in the hold in the sleep of death. The disciples are broken and scattered in fear. As lightning sears the clouds, we follow the gaze of the disciples: the main mast, now bereft of sails, reveals a naked cross silhouetted against the darkling sky. Surely here we’ve drawn close to calvary, and surely again the Lord sleeps. Yet we know by faith that this sleep of the Lord is his ultimate victory. His death is the means by which he conquers sin. In the awakening of the resurrection, our fears and our peril are vanquished.

For centuries, Christians have related to this passage when facing challenging times, and they have found solace in its truth: God is with us, still in control. What’s more, it’s often the times in which he seems most asleep or furthest from us that he does his most powerful work. 

How then should we respond, knowing what we know about God’s providential presence and power?  St. Augustine challenges us: in times where we seem tempted, frustrated or afraid, we should remember that God is present and resting even in the hold of our hearts. We should awaken our knowledge of him there, and allow him to quell the storms that beset us. If we entrust our challenges and emotions to his care, we will see that he works all things to the good of those who love him.

Fr. Miserendino is parochial vicar of St. Bernadette Church in Springfield. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021