In the Gospel for daily Mass on this past Wednesday we read from Mark Chapter 6. It is the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water after having multiplied to loaves and fishes earlier that day.
There is to our modern ears an odd turn of phrase that takes place about midway through the gospel. It says: About the fourth watch of the night, [Jesus] came toward them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them… (Mark 6:48)
This seems odd. Why would Jesus approach them walking on the water, (astounding miracle that it is), and simply mean to pass on by?
The problem is, we think that it means that he will not to stop, but will keep walking passed them. But actually this is not what it means.
This expression of God “passing by” is common in the Theophanies of the Old Testament. For example, when Moses was up on the mountaintop, The text teaches us in Exodus, that he revealed himself to Moses by “passing by.” The text says:
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33: 18-23)
Another example of this is in the appearance he made to Elijah who was hiding in a cave after his flight from Jezebel. At one point, God called him out of the cave so that he could “pass by” The text says,
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 kings 19:11-13)
Some other example of this “passing by are:
- When John the Baptist saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:36)
- Now hearing a crowd going by, [the Blind Man] began to inquire what this was. They told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he called out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”… (Lk 18:37-38)
Hence, for Jesus to “pass by” is not for him to walk past us in hiding. Rather, it is just the opposite, it is for him to reveal himself to us and summon us to Faith. This is also the case in the Old Testament texts where God “passes by” not to hide, but reveal himself and summon us to faith.
Some may argue that these phrases should be translated differently so that we can better grasp their meaning. Why not just say “He came toward them to reveal himself to them” ??
Perhaps there is some merit in this. But I would counter that more mileage is sometimes gained by the text causing us to ponder, and pray. Consider that in “decoding” this text we have looked at four other passages. Further, we have deepened our appreciation of what it means for God to “pass by.”
What is easy, is not always what is best for us.