I once had the exciting experience of fishing on Galway Bay. A friend arranged with some fishermen he knew to take us with them on their boat. The boat was small, a rowing boat without an engine, but as we set off the water was calm and the sky untroubled. They worked deftly and effectively, obviously well experienced at their trade. One of the fishermen had lost a couple of fingers. He did not tell us how this had happened but somehow it seemed re-assuring rather than ominous.
About an hour into our dawdle across the bay my friend and I, sitting at the back of the boat, noticed a large dark cloud approaching from the west. It was behind the backs of our fishermen friends. In any case, I thought, they know the place well, and all its moods, so we will be safe enough. A short time later they were still unaware of what was now a menacing dark mass growing quickly behind them. Either my friend or I finally said 'I suppose we will be okay with that bit of weather coming towards us'. The fishermen looked around and one of them shouted 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph!' That stirred us from our complacency and it was lines in, buckets stowed and all hands to the oars to get us back to dry land as quickly as possible.
Fishermen respect the sea. Their experience itself teaches them to be more rather than less fearful because they know well what it can do. In Mark's account of the calming of the storm at sea, however, the disciples are terrified not so much by the storm as by the power working through Jesus. Matthew's and Luke's accounts intrude and prevent us paying careful attention to Mark's account. There is no mention of fear until the storm is over, the sea is calm and the winds have died down again. Then there is talk of fear, a fear that is even stronger as they reflect on their question, 'who is this whom even the wind and sea obey?'
The winds and the sea obey him. It means they 'hear' his voice and listen to it. So much of the previous section of the gospel is about those who have ears to hear. It seems as if the wind and the sea have such ears. As we read on in Mark we will discover that pigs and demons also listen and obey him. Human beings are the doubtful ones: have they no faith? (Mark) have they little faith? (Matthew) have they any faith? (Luke)
Mark's account teaches us very clearly that they were afraid of Jesus. If we only had his account, then the disciples might have woken him out of curiosity (how can you sleep through this?) or even irritation (we need everybody helping out, if you don't mind). Their fear only comes with his question to them about faith. Then, Mark tells us, they were afraid with a great fear (limply translated in some versions as 'filled with awe' when 'feared exceedingly' is closer to the Greek).
The fear aroused by the question about faith is the fear of wide open spaces and an uncharted future. When what we are talking about is theological faith - faith in God - then it is the fear of transcendence, not the kinds of transcendence over which human beings can maintain control but the kind of transcendence that controls us. It is the love of Christ, Paul says in the second reading, that controls us. Faith opens us to that love, opening up a space of nothingness, of empty hands and an open heart, a nothing with which God can work.
Of course we want to be in control, to control as much of the natural world as possible. To control people and events also as much as we can. We want to control even Christ and God, to know where they belong in the scheme of things, to fit them into our lives. But faith - what Jesus asks of his frightened disciples - means submitting to His control of things. It means accepting (Paul again) that one has died for all so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him. In other words, faith means opening up to death, and so to new life and a new creation. But first it means death (death to the old and established) and who is not afraid of death?
Paul says that we once knew Christ 'in a fleshly way' - 'from a human point of view' is how one translation puts it. The human point of view must give way to a theological point of view where the old has passed away, the new has come, and there is a new creation. Faith opens the door to this. The section of Paul from which we read today in fact begins by talking about faith and the fear of the Lord, about being beside ourselves (believing is a kind of madness) and being in our right mind (wanting to share these things with you).
So what has happened to the disciples in this journey across the lake? They took him 'just as he was' is a strange phrase at the beginning of today's gospel passage. So who did he reveal himself to be in the course of the journey?And what is it about him that ought rightly to fill us with awe, 'fearing with a great fear'? He calls them on to a depth of listening and commitment that seems infinite (faith, opening to death, and to a new creation). While calming the wind and the seas, he calls them to a shaking up and a remaking of their lives that will continue as long as they are alive.
Faith is not a matter of 'take it or leave it', it is not a matter of 'taking it as it comes'. Theological faith - faith impelled by the love of Christ - is rather a matter of opening up and continuing to open up to a depth of love and truth beyond imagination and beyond expectation. The door of faith opens onto that unending search. In the face of such divine depths, and of the call to leave the familiar to enter into them, it seems reasonable that we should, like the experienced fishermen of Galway Bay, be afraid. A power is approaching and we do not know what it will mean for our lives.