Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
In this Gospel passage, as with other stories in the Gospels, the Fathers see both something that is being taught to the disciples as well as a figurative understanding of what is going on. We’ll first concentrate on the actual events and what Christ was teaching through them first and then we’ll take a look at the figurative meaning.
He sent the disciples away in a boat and then he dismissed the crowds. After doing both of these things, He went up on the mountain by himself to pray. He was teaching us that solitude and seclusion are good when we pray to God. To this end, we see multiple times in the Gospels where he would withdraw to a solitary place to pray. The Church and the Synod has been encouraging us during this time of Covid-19 to make family altars and to pray as a family, which is good and needful. However, we must also take the time to nurture and grow in our relationship with God alone. It is not either/or, but both. We must develop both types of prayer as we walk with our Lord.
The disciples had a problem with fear, as I do as well and probably many of you. Our Lord’s solution or treatment for it, is not something I like. St. John Chrysostom tells us that Christ cast them into a situation where their fear would be increased. They would be in rough weather without him. We remember that previously in chapter 8 of St. Matthew they had been frightened by the storm, but He was with them and had silenced the storm. Now He sends them off by themselves that they might develop a greater longing for Him and a continual remembrance of Him.
He then comes to them walking across the sea. Saint Chromatius asks the question,
Who was able to walk on the sea if not the creator of the universe?1
Indeed, this was prophesied in the First Testament Scriptures through the Holy Spirit by Job, Solomon and David:
who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the Sea;
I dwelt in the highest heavens,
and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
and traversed the depths of the abyss.
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
These passages point to Him both walking on water as well as the ground. St. John Chrysostom points out that He did not speedily come to them. He allowed time for their fears to increase. They were troubled not only by the storm but also by the great distance to land. He was training them through these fears and teaching them how they were to endure during their ministry later.
St. John Chrysostom, furthermore, tells us that He was teaching them to not be to hasty in seeking deliverance, i.e. to have the patience to wait for the deliverance of Christ. This is something that I really struggle with. I have my problem and I want it fixed now. However, several years ago I saw the example of Asian brothers which has challenged me.
When I took a trip to an Asian country, I was confronted by a different culture. It was one of waiting in prayer. Whereas I often pray, and the answer doesn’t come in a few days, then I think of it as a non-answer or a no. However, a believer in that country explained that they pray about projects and then seek permission from the government officials. If the request is denied they don’t take it as a no, but rather as something that needs more prayer. They will continue to pray until they have the freedom to go ahead with the project.
Jesus walks across the water, the disciples see him, and St. Peter asks to come to Him. St. Peter’s faith is always ardent and vocal. Sometimes it was misplaced, like when he desired to be crucified with Christ, but his affection was always strong. St. Peter the first among the apostles, asks to come to Christ, while the others merely gaze in awe. He believes that he can do by the will of Christ, what Christ does by His nature i.e. walk on water. St. Peter walked on water not so much rejoicing that he could walk on water as that he could come to Christ. The strengthening of faith through the storm had had its desired effect upon him.
The Lord enters the boat and by His presence the winds cease. The first time he spoke to calm the storm and this time His power is revealed merely through His presence. For this reason, the disciples worship Him and say, “Truly You are the Son of God.”
Now let us take a look at some of the things that the Fathers see this passage saying figuratively. He orders the disciples away and He dismisses the crowds, then He goes up on the mountain. This is an image of what the apostolic ministry and the ministry of the Church would be. He orders in the great commission that He be carried throughout the whole world until He returns, just as He is on the sea with them and He is coming to them. When He comes, He will come in dazzling brilliance bringing salvation and the forgiveness of sins.
The boat carrying the disciples within it is a picture of the Church with the saints within it. While the boat is rocked and shook by the waves and storm, the Church is shaken with the storms of temptation and the winds of adversity. The Devil attempts to keep the storms raging against us, while Christ comes to us and strengthens and keeps us from being tossed from the boat through the storm.
While it is still dangerous in the boat in the midst of the storm, outside of the boat is certain death. The Church alone carries the disciples and believers, therefore in the midst of storms, we are to stay inside the Church and call upon God. When sailors are unable because of storms to reach port, they call upon God for deliverance. Because of this, St. Augustin asks this question,
Therefore will he who helps those who are sailing to reach port safely, abandon his church and prevent it from arriving in peace and tranquility?2
Jesus comes to them in the fourth watch of the night or the final watch of the night. The Fathers see these watches as four periods in the history of the world and they have slightly different ways of splitting up the different periods. I would encourage you to study them and glean the benefit of these different perspectives. We’ll be taking a look at St. Hilary of Poitiers understanding of the four periods.
The Lord comes in the fourth watch. This is the fourth time that he comes to a shipwrecked Church. His concern is just as great as the first time that He came to the Church. He came first in giving the law through Moses. Second, he came through the prophets. Third, He came in His incarnation and finally He will return in splendour.
But he will find the church in distress and beleaguered by the spirit of the antichrist and by disturbances throughout the world. He will come to those who are restless and deeply troubled.
He will come when the church is exposed to temptations of every kind and when we are terrified by things that are from our own imaginations and from things that are real.
But the good Lord will then speak out and dispel their fear, saying, “It is I.” He will dispel the fear of impending shipwreck through their faith in his coming.
He comes walking at the fourth watch of the night i.e. at the end of the world, He will come to our rescue. Although we in the Church are tossed by the storms of temptation, we will see the glorified Christ walking upon the billows and waves i.e. upon all the powers of this world. He conquered these powers through his Passion i.e. His crucifixion and resurrection. These waves that He submitted himself to willingly for our sakes were stilled as the prophecy states,
“I came to the height of the sea, and the storm swallowed me up.”
Once he got into the boat, the wind and sea calmed down. Once Christ returns in His eternal splendour, peace and tranquility are in store for the Church. When His arrival is made known to the world with great wonders, everyone will exclaim, “Truly you are the Son of God.” As St. Paul also testifies that God has given Jesus a name above every name that at His name every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.
All people will then declare absolutely and publicly that the Son of God has restored peace to the Church, not in physical lowliness but in heavenly glory.
We see then that this story of Christ walking upon the waves is a story of His triumph over the powers of evil, salvation for us, his blessed second coming, and His acknowledgement by the whole world that He is truly the Son of God.
Let us first, find a place where we can pray alone with God whether that is your bedroom or a corner of your bedroom if you share your room, or your office. Take it upon yourself to find a place where you can draw away and be alone with God.
Second, we must embrace the building up of things in our lives that cause us fear that we can learn to overcome. God desires so much to teach us to endure and be faithful in the midst of any situation, and still St. Paul stated that he ministered with trembling. Fear may remain with us, but we can learn through the help of Christ to overcome.
Third, let us be patient to wait for the deliverance of Christ that will come. He will deliver us, let us remain in prayer until that happens.
Fourth, let us desire that we will come to the point where we want the presence of Christ more than the solution to our problems. In the same way that St. Peter desired to walk to Christ rather than to be freed from the storm.
Fifth, we must remain in the church despite the great storms and temptations of life. For while it may be difficult to survive in the Church, it is impossible to live outside of it. The Church preserves the saints.
Sixth, let us look to the coming of the Lord and the restoration and the salvation that will bring. It will mean the end of all storms and that we can celebrate and glorify God that our salvation has come.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
Daniel of Uranc. Jesus Walking on Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=59668 [retrieved June 28, 2022]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_walking_on_water._Daniel_of_Uranc,_1433.jpg.
1 Thomas C. Oden and Manlio Simonetti, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ib (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 12