Millions of people on the East Coast of the U.S. are frightened as Hurricane Sandy makes landfall today. Frightened of many things: terrible damage from the wind and water, especially the surging, recor d-breaking tides; widespread power outages that may last for days; the potential loss of potable water; and, even more serious concerns like caring for a sick loved one.
In these times, it’s is easy and natural and human to be frightened. It’s not a sin to be frightened. Listening to the rising wind outside my own window is not the most comforting thing in the world.
But there are resources for those who fear. For me, the Gospel passages I turn to most when I’m frightened are the Annunciation and the Storm at Sea.
In the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), Mary, a young woman in the backwater town of Nazareth, is visited by the angel Gabriel, who will soon tell her that she is going to give birth to a child. Now, people facing the brunt of Hurricane Sandy might wonder what this gentle Gospel reading has to do with their problems and worries.
Well, when the angel first greets Mary, the Gospel tells us that Mary is “perplexed” or “greatly disturbed.” (The Greek is dietarrachthe : deeply disturbed.) How could she not have been? However we imagine this encounter to have happened, it must have been terrifying. Mary truly knows fear.
In response, the angel tells her directly not to fear (which means that the English “perplexed” or “disturbed” doesn’t convey fully her emotions). The angel then tells her that she will bear a child.
Mary then asks what many of us ask in times of crisis: “How can this be?” She is of course asking how a virgin could give birth. But she also saying that she has no idea what the future will bring. She is fearful and confused about what is coming. In response, the angel says something odd. After explaining that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow her,” which may have confused her even more, he points her to something that she can see: the experience of her cousin Elizabeth. “Know that your cousin Elizabeth is with child. She who was once considered barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
In other words, if you’re frightened, look at where God has already been with you. Mary would have known that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant. Extended families were very close in her day; this would have been something that Mary knew well. So the angel is not telling her something that will happen, but something that has already happened. The angel is saying: Look at what God has already done in your life.
In times of fear, look backwards. Look where God has been with you in the past, and remember that God will continue to be. Trust that the God who has been with you in the past will not abandon you, either in the present or in the future.
The second reading that I find helpful is the Storm at Sea, which is in Matthew (8:23-27) as well as in Mark (4:35-41) and Luke (8:22-25).
In that story, while the disciples and Jesus are crossing the Sea of Galilee, in a little fishing boat, a storm arises suddenly. (This happens even today, because of the particular landscape and weather patterns of the region).
“A great windstorm arose,” says Mark, “and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” The disciples were terrified. And for a good reason: Luke says, “And they were in danger.”
Jesus, however, was fast asleep. The disciples, probably frustrated and furious that he seemingly didn’t care about the life-threatening situation they were in, woke him up, and said the words that so many of us say in times of danger: “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Think of those words being shouted in fear over the terrible wind and waves.
At that Jesus woke up and, according to Mark, “He rebuked the wind, and said to the sea: Peace! Be still!” The wind stopped immediately and there was “a dead calm.” Then he said to them: “Where is your faith?”
During the times when the storms batter our boats—both literal and figurative ones—and all seems lost, and when it seems that God is “asleep,” he is right there with us, inside the boat. Not far off, not uninterested, but deeply involved, with us in our storms.
Sometimes it is hard to see, and sometimes it takes a while to realize exactly how God is with us, but God is there. Remember: God entered fully into our humanity, as a human being, and the Risen Christ is with us in all of our trials. That doesn’t mean that things will not get tough, but the one who you think is not paying attention is closer than you think. In fact, God is closer than you can imagine. In the presence of your friends and family, in the help you receive from strangers, and in the deepest part of yourself: in your soul where God is, as St. Augustine said, “Nearer to me than I am to myself.”
May the Virgin Mary who knew fear, pray for you. And may the Lord of the wind and the waves be your constant companion.