We know that the ship (bark or barque, barchetta) was an ancient Christian symbol. It is symbolic of the Church, and to some extent the individual soul, tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution but finally reaching safe harbour with its cargo of human souls.
And for the individual believer, in the words of St Augustine, (“Our hearts are restless Lord until they rest in You”) the safe harbour is the arms of the Father in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, through the intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Christ. Part of this imagery of the Church as a boat, comes from the ark saving Noah's family during the Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21) and Jesus protecting St. Peter's boat and the apostles on the stormy Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). It was also a great symbol during times when Christians needed to disguise the cross, since the ship's mast forms a cross in many of its depictions. As far back as the Patristic period, Tertullian likened the bishop surrounded by the assembly of the faithful to the helmsman of a ship.
Sometimes we can feel like our family and family life is like a boat trying to weather the storms of life and striving to survive the squalls that toss and turn it around. All sorts of things in life can disorientate our family harmony and stability, many of which we tend to overcome on a daily basis through prayerful patience and not a small amount of mercy and forgiveness. The Church too, in her history and contemporary existence, can appear or feel like She is navigating unknown waters and unchartered territory. And that can be disconcerting. But the one constant for both our individual family life (the domestic church) and the life of the Church is the One by whom we must navigate. The compass as it were who directs us (spiritually-speaking) to the north, south, east or west depending on the circumstances. Jesus Christ. And that “compass” is never disoriented, it never malfunctions, it always indicates the right way to go. This is hugely important to remember and the celebration of the birth of Christ is the appropriate moment to be encouraged by it.
Are we hurt, disappointed, let down and even demoralised when things do, but shouldn't, happen in the life of the Church, like scandals and mockeries of the Faith which ought to so easily have been prevented and avoided? Yes absolutely; but as the great Mgr Ronald Knox once said; “He who travels in the Barque of Peter had better not look too closely into the engine room.”
So too as our families gather at Christmas it may well be in circumstances where on the surface - on deck – (and it can often be a case of ‘all hands on deck’ to get Christmas celebrations ready!) all seems ship-shape and ordered, but down below in the ‘hold’ of our hearts and within the steerage of family memories, pain lingers and past sorrows are deep pools of unresolved hurts. So be it. But it does not mean that all of these things stop or deter us from calling upon the Prince of Peace to gift our homes and hearts with the “safe harbour” of peace at Christmas time.
Let’s try to remember that as we humbly approach the Lord – especially to venerate the Crib - in our churches, at home or elsewhere this Christmas, we do so in the knowledge that in order to draw near to that Crib we most likely will have to walk through the “nave” of the church. The nave comes from the Latin word meaning “boat”. So as Christmas comes and we experience anew the dawn of salvation in our hearts and the world, let us be confident in hope and consolation with a fresh knowing that in the end, as one great family of the Church, we are in fact all in the same boat and its name is “HMS Mercy” – HIS MAJESTY’S SHIP, not ours. That mercy is sure for all, even if (like it was for the apostles during the storm) it feels like the Captain of the vessel is asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, and we’re feeling vulnerable, alone and afraid. He has not left us of course. The Lord is there at moments when we sense an absence; and indeed it may be that just like the ancient mariners had to navigate their course by the stars, Christ wants us to turn our attention to the Star of the New Evangelisation – Mary the Mother of God. For as the ‘Refuge of Sinners’ She is never far from those who reach out to her in need and trust.
Wishing you all a truly blessed and peace-filled Christmas.
(The Friday Fast will return in the New Year)
- Edmund Adamus
Director, Office of Marriage and Family Life - Diocese of Westminster