In the gospel of Mark, a group of terrified disciples wake Jesus as a storm rages around their boat on the Sea of Galilee. “Master,” they cry in desperation, “carest thou not that we perish?” (see Mark 4:36-41).
Jesus’s power to calm the waters has inspired Christians down through the centuries. Consider this striking illuminated scene from the Hitda Codex, a manuscript of Gospel excerpts compiled around 1020 CE.1 Such a manuscript was used for Gospel readings during church services. The fact that this particular colorful scene covered a full manuscript page signaled its importance to the faithful:
The boat itself resembles a fantastical creature of the deep with the head of a sea dragon.2 It holds in its belly several haloed disciples. They look outward into the storm while Jesus rests serenely on his arm at the side of the boat. The wind whips the sails and lines overhead. The boat is subject to the tumult of the sea, so much so that the prow even interrupts the border of the framed page.
No one in the picture is looking at Jesus, except for one disciple, almost disguised by the figure that overlaps in front of him. Three elegantly long fingers reach out to touch the shoulder of Jesus to wake him. I love that little detail. In all of the chaos, the artist decided to depict a hand physically reaching out to Jesus.
Can you imagine the kind of sermon that might accompany the scriptural text of this book? The image itself might have inspired many words that could call down comfort and the presence of God to be with followers of Jesus in moments of distress and in ordinary time.
One sure mark of the presence of God on the earth is, and always has been, the particular care with which he shows his hand. This morning I felt my own shoulder tapped by Psalms 107:23-30. This prayer-song specifies various calamities and acknowledges the powers that vanquish the very elements of nature herself.
23 They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
24 These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
25 For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.
26 They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.
27 They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end.
28 Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
29 He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
30 Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
Today I was resigned to face my own “business in great waters”—not high seas adventure, but the mundane tasks of daily living, work, and rest within the bounds of self-isolation while trying to negotiate and sacredly manage my household in love. I was imagining ways to combat the impending ennui, the creeping listlessness that pushes me to my wit’s end (thank you for that frank turn of phrase, KJV).
Today the words of Psalm 107 came to life and called my heart to attention.3 The psalm was speaking directly to my feelings about the present crisis, the global pandemic.
In short, I want to say this: Our supplications, our prayers, our human words, have a profound theological grounding. God asks us to speak. Our voices of praise and pleading are meant to be heard. They are not drowned in the deep. Our personal psalms are themselves a salve and a succor by which the God of the whole earth can interact with us, even as we labor under distress. Our words may, in faith, bring divine protection to our neighbor and ourselves.
Those who go to sea must expect perils. These times are part of our mortal condition. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been asked by our prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, to fast and pray this Sunday for healing in this world, for God’s particular and fathomless care to be manifest. Let us venture into these waters publicly and in our private moments, in our closets, in our families, with our (virtual) congregations and (online) assemblies, in hope.
In gladness, in our quiet, we are also erecting what one Bible commentary calls the very “memorials of deliverance, to the honour of God, and for the encouragement of others to trust him.”4
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Catherine Gines Taylor is the Hugh W. Nibley Postdoctoral Fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. She specializes in late antique Christian art history and iconography. She is author of Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning: Allotting the Scarlet and the Purple (Brill, 2018).
1. The abbess Hitda commissioned this particular manuscript, also known as an Evangeliary. The Hitda Codex (Ms. Cod. 1640 f 117r) is now preserved in the Hessische Landesbibliothek in Darmstadt, Germany.
2. In Greek, ketos, a monster referenced throughout the Bible.
3. Thank you, Judy Hart Irving.
4. See Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete). Vol. 3, https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/psalms/107.html.