Jesus, Savior, pilot me,
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treacherous shoal.
Chart and compass come from Thee:
Jesus Savior, pilot me.
Perhaps it’s because I’m an artist and I’m particularly drawn to images, but I’ve been meditating lately on the logo for the Year of Faith. For me, at least, it’s a logo that comes with a soundtrack, because looking at it immediately calls to mind an old-time gospel hymn, “Jesus Savior, Pilot Me.” My dear friend Buddy Tabor loved to sing this song, so much so that he requested that we sing it at his funeral after his death last year.
The logo depicts the bow of a ship underway. The mainsail, monogrammed with the name of Jesus, billows from the cross-shaped mast. This symbol of the Church and of faith in Christ goes back to the first centuries of Christianity.
As with much of Christian art and iconography, the symbol of the ship has its origins in pagan Greek and Roman art. Ships or boats are common images found on pagan tombs and sarcophagi. For the ancient Greeks and Romans they symbolized the boat that conveyed the shades of the newly dead across the river Styx to the underworld, where the dead endured a shadowy and bleak afterlife. At the banks of the river that separated the living from the dead, the shades were met by Charon, the ferryman of the underworld. This fierce and rough figure demanded payment for the crossing and brusquely herded the unfortunate dead on his boat.
Some in the pagan world interpreted Charon’s craft in a more optimistic light, as a sign of their hope in immortality. For them the ship of the dead symbolized their hope that they might join the heroes and other exceptional persons who were conveyed by Charon to the Fortunate Isles to be admitted to the Elysian Fields.
The early Christians adopted the image of the ship from pagan art but gave it an entirely new and different meaning. For them, the ship was a symbol of Christ, his Church and salvation. In the mast they saw the Cross, on which Jesus had saved humanity from the power of sin and death. The hull of the ship recalled for them the ark, which saved Noah and his family from the Great Deluge, a prefiguring of salvation and baptism. The image of a ship which for pagans was a gloomy reminder of the inevitable fate of all mortals, was for Christians a sign of blessed hope. They rejoiced in the ship of Christ and his Church which promised to bring them, through the power of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection, from death to new life.
For the Church Fathers, the ship recalled Christ’s earthly ministry and how he taught and stilled the storm while onboard the fishing boats of the apostles. Thus, the ship signified for them Christ in the midst of his Church as it made its pilgrimage in the intervening time between the First and the Second coming of the Lord.
For me, the logo of the Year of Faith calls to mind the words of the seventh century Bishop and Martyr, St. Boniface, who wrote: “In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on course.” This arresting image of the Church as a ship underway in heavy seas which begins Bishop Boniface’s famous letter of encouragement to his fellow pastors, is for me, a compelling image of the tasks not only of pastors but of all disciples.
First, the good news. The ship which is the Church is already underway and the Spirit is filling her sails. This applies to the Church as the sacrament of Christ throughout the ages but it also is the situation of every local Church, of our diocese, of each of our parishes, of our families and each one of us personally. We know our destination, which is the safe harbor of Christ. It is the Lord himself who has set the heading but it is up to us as his disciples to stay on course in whatever weather we find ourselves in.
To extend the metaphor further, as disciples we are not passengers on a cruise ship but the crew of a working boat on an urgent mission. Although every generation joins this voyage of the Church ‘in progress,’ each of us is responsible for doing our part to keep the ship of Christ on course and not to abandon her, come what may.
Our part, my part, begins, I think, by committing to going deeper in prayer with and in Jesus so as to become aware and grateful for his abiding and saving presence within me. Brother Roger Schütze, the founder of the Taize Community, writing about prayer in Jesus wrote: “In the depths of our being Christ is praying, far more than we imagine. Compared to the immensity of that hidden prayer of Christ in us, our explicit praying dwindles to almost nothing. That is why silence is so essential in discovering the heart of prayer.”
For myself, I want to be in the boat with Jesus and never to be separated from him, so that his voice alone is guiding me. Even with the wind howling and the waves crashing over the bow, I need to begin by finding that place of stillness and quiet where I can hear the words of Jesus, believe and trust in him, obediently respond to his commands and invite others to know the one who knows and love us so deeply.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23