On these Sundays of August, we are seeing Jesus display his divine power for our lasting good – not just for some material good, but above all to stir in us the gift and courage of faith by exposing us to the signs of his divinity.
Last Sunday, he used his power to feed and feast various human hungers: of the stomach, of infirmity and above all a feast of divine and human compassion for the famished hearts of the multitude.
Today, he uses his power to calm the fears of those he loves. Our root fear is the fear of death; every other fear comes back to it. But before we look at how Jesus conquers that fear, let us look more closely at what St. Matthew actually says in today’s Gospel.
The walking on the water is preceded immediately by the miracle of the loaves and fishes for thousands. It is succeeded by Jesus again being with another large crowd, teaching and healing them with great love. These and other “crowd-bathing” experiences of Jesus contrast sharply with his desire to be alone in today’s Gospel. Let’s see if we can discover why.
St. Matthew actually says that Jesus “forced” the disciples to get into the boat and go on ahead without him. This is very unusual: he is normally always with the disciples. He also dismisses the crowds. Now if you remember, earlier the disciples had asked him to send them away to buy food but he had then replied, “there is no need for them to go.” Yet now it is he who is sending them away!
There is also almost a hurriedness as he forces his friends to go and dismisses the crowd. In St. John’s account of the same miracle of the loaves we may find an explanation for this urgency. There, the crowds wanted to force Jesus to be king after the miracle, so Jesus escaped to the hills alone to avoid that. Without saying this, perhaps St. Matthew is also hinting that Jesus wanted to avoid this political trap, however well-meaning. It is one which the devil had already tried on Jesus earlier in the Gospel, one Jesus firmly rejected. He was no political Messiah, but the Messiah of men’s souls.
So, the prayerful solitude of Jesus at this point is almost as if to re-emphasize the awareness of his true mission from the Father. Alone in the hills in prayer, he plunges back into the depths of his origin in the Father to emerge from it to walk on the waters. He had exercised his power in protecting those around him from a political misreading of his mission. He was now exercising his power in prayer to the Father about the true spiritual nature of his mission.
The latest is gets dark in Israel is about 8pm, the earliest is about 4.30pm. Even if we take 8pm, then Jesus probably sent the people away an hour or two before that, so that they could get home before dark. This means that Jesus was 8 or 9 hours in prayer before he walked towards the disciples on the water somewhere between 3 and 6am in the morning. Now that’s what I call prayer! For Jesus, I would imagine the time passed quickly given how absorbed he would be in his Father in the power of the Spirit.
What would he be praying about? It would not be unrelated to the events of the days just passed or of the days about to come. Jesus himself says in St. John’s Gospel that the works he carries out are given to him by the Father. So, his feeding of the thousands would not have been a random thing. Nor, I suspect, was the walking on the water which he was about to undertake. In all these works, Jesus obeys his Father’s will, a will he perceives and deepens in prayer to the Father, the will gradually to reveal himself to the disciples as the Son of God.
From the hills, Jesus saw the disciples getting into difficulty in the lake. He had already once before calmed the storm while he was in the boat with them, so he knew how afraid they would be. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus therefore takes to the waves. The disciples at first think he’s a ghost. It was a common superstition at the time that the ghosts of those who perished at sea occasionally appeared. The fourth watch of the night is reputedly the darkest. So, how did the disciples see Jesus? Given that he was manifesting his divinity in this miracle, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the light was not shining on Jesus but shining from within him, as it would later do much more dazzlingly at the Transfiguration.
In the boat, the panic would turn manic at the sight of the “ghost”: death was coming for them! Of course, it was not death that was coming for them, but Life, Life in Person. The voice of Life cried out through the wind, “Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid!” These words could seem banal in such drama, but to Jewish ears they were unmistakeably words which only God spoke in the Old Testament. In particular, “it is I” actually translates as “I Am Who Am”, the divine name revealed to Moses. On many other occasions in the history of Israel, God’s call to have courage and trust, and not to be afraid, became words by which his saving divine presence was recognised.
Walking on water is also something mentioned in various places in the Old Testament. Job speaks poetically of God, at the beginning of creation, as one who “alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waters of the sea” (Job 9:8). Psalm 77 also speaks of God whose “path led through the sea … but your footprints were not to be found.”
So, between the walking on the waters and the words he spoke, Jesus was plainly making known to his disciples that he was doing the things only God did and speaking the words only God spoke. It is Peter who appears to catch onto this and so, like the patriarch Jacob of the Old Testament, he takes up the challenge and wrestles as it were with Jesus. “If it is you, Lord, tell me to come to you across the water.” Peter trusts in the power of the word of Jesus. Remember that they had just witnessed it in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and had seen it in action in his works of healing and exorcism.
When Jesus gives the command, Peter’s faith becomes the vehicle by which Jesus shares with him his power over nature. We know that Jesus prays to the Father especially for Peter because of the special mission he will give him. No doubt, he had just prayed for him up on the hills before this moment. So, Peter starts walking towards Jesus, his gaze fixed on him, which is what faith enables us to do. But Peter the fisherman, who knew the fury and power of the sea from long fishing experience, loses his nerve and lets his eyes slip. His faith is real and strong but, as Jesus says to him, it is little: “Man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And still, it is from within that little faith that Peter was yet able to call out, “Lord! Save me!”
Try to imagine for a moment that experience of Peter, sinking in the wind and waves. The cold, the water thrashing onto your face and into your mouth as you gasp for breath and try to shout for help. It is a powerful image of dying, of defeat, and maybe even of a certain despair. But it is not the whole story, nor is it the most important part of it. Try now to imagine the sight of the face of the Jesus you love and who you know loves you, reaching over you. A face of strength and power and tenderness and majesty all wrapped into one. But even more importantly than that, imagine his strong carpenter’s right hand and arm grasping you by the wrist; feel the power of the divine man and of the human God lift you up straight, eye to eye with himself, reassuring you with his strength and walking with you back into the boat. And he would have carried Peter if necessary.
The wind drops and everyone in the boat drops their oars and ropes and bow before him, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” This conclusion to the episode is not a detail. It is what Christ wanted most of all. Not adulation of his power. He wasn’t showing off. No, he wanted the prize of their faith in him. He said and did the things only God could say and do. In Peter’s faith, our faith, is mirrored: it can be strong, even if little and even if it is undercut by doubts from time to time.
In this manifestation of his divinity, Jesus not only nor primarily asserts his power over the elements. He is foretelling his victory over sin and death, symbolised by the raging sea, and therefore he is foretelling his victory over our fear of sin and death if we truly believe in him. He is greater than Moses who parted the Red Sea and brought down manna from heaven, for Jesus actually walks on the sea and tramples it underfoot and feeds us with the Bread of his own Risen Body.
For the Church, too, symbolised in the boat, neither the storms of the times, nor the winds of temptation, nor the traps of sin and death will make her sink. The gates of hell will not prevail – not because of us, but because of the man who is God and who treads hell underfoot.
I determined many years ago that this Gospel would be the Gospel for my own funeral. When we are each experiencing fears and storms of whatever kind, we cannot conquer them alone. Nor can we conquer them by staying in them, by letting them imprison us and tell us the lie that we are without hope. We have to look outwards towards the Lord and take the risk to get out of them, especially when our night is at its darkest and our fears are at their fiercest. We don’t need to cry, “Lord, if it is you”, for thankfully, we know it is always him who comes to us especially at those times. We need to take our eyes off ourselves and our plight and fix them with faith on the man who treads the waters of the sea without leaving his footprints. His glorious presence and his powerful outstretched arm will soon lift us up and restore us to calm.
Christ is always praying for us on the eternal hills, watching how we are faring in the lake of life. And his words to us in our trials and sorrows and supremely at our death itself will be just the same as they were to Peter: “Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid! Come!” With the confidence of faith and love, go we can – go we must!