Jesus Walks on the Water, Aivazovsky, 1888, State Museum of Religious History, St Petersburg, Russian Federation.
[Jesus] said to [Peter], “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Matthew 14:31b.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
Last week I mentioned the scholarly aversion to miracles, and offered their interpretation of the loaves and fishes miracle. Today, however, we have something entirely different. Remember a miracle is a work of God which confounds the natural laws under which we all live. One is that if you try to walk on water, you will sink! Well scholars are in a pickle when it comes to today’s gospel story of Jesus and, to some extent, Peter, walking on the water. One “explanation” is that Jesus projected a self-image of himself walking on the water (but no suggestion on how this could have been done)….. Another is that the disciples in the boat saw Jesus on the shore but with the tempest and mist and wind and darkness around them, they confused the shore with the water….. Another is that this began as a simple reunion story embellished with an Old Testament theme of God taming the waters in the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. Other scholars, probably in the majority, say that Jesus, Son of God, was above such laws of nature, and hence did, indeed, walk on the water. Well, the choice is yours. Remember that the Catholic Church still accepts miracles as divine intervention even today, but they have to be 1) instantaneous, 2) inexplicable, and 3) permanent. For example, the 2012 miraculous cure in France of Sister Marie-Simon Pierre of the French order of the Little Sisters of Catholic Maternity. Remember also that Catholic believers are not required to accept them as miracles, but it is hoped that they do strengthen our faith and hope in God. Well, given all that, what is today’s gospel message?
Sea of Galilee looking west to the hills where Jesus went to pray.
But today’s gospel is indeed heavy with symbolism and meaning. The parallel with the book of Genesis is one such example. The waters of creation are in the very first words, verse 2: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” It is the ancients’ idea of total chaos. Their control over such waters was basically zero when at sea, and in storms they would be almost always begging God for delivery from imminent death. Now look at today’s gospel. The boat was being “tossed about by the waves” and the “Wind was against it”. They were way out at sea, by about a “few miles”, which is a long way. This event is recorded in two other gospels, one of which describes them as rowing (John 6:19), which is what you have to do if the wind is dead set against you. In other words, they were in a perilous situation presumably blown by the wind in the wrong direction as they were rowing, the situation where you start crying to God for help. And Jesus appears, walking over the very waves threatening them with death. When he gets into the boat, the “wind died down”. Anyone who has been through a life situation which was desperate and with little hope, and has appealed for God’s help, it comes. Now that not might be the help which is obvious – Jesus walking on the waves was not an obvious remedy – but the simple presence of the Lord, afforded by faith, makes any situation tolerable, for it carries the promise of eternal life and happiness, greater than any human crisis. All this is mirrored in the gospel; the wind died down as soon as Jesus got into the boat, prompting the confession of faith from his disciples: “Truly you are the Son of God”, the first time they had declared this. Note that they originally thought he was a ghost, not real. In other words, their fear of their perilous situation blinded them to God’s presence, another dynamic in the story. It seems that overwhelming fear might well crush any thought of God’s presence, another lesson from this story. Look at the first reading and see the clear parallel from the first reading, taken from the First Book of Kings. The second reading is connected also. St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, laments that his fellow Israelites had the Lord in their midst but did not recognize him even after he had performed miracles before their very eyes, something only God can do. Paul seems to offer himself and even his faith for the sake of their conversion.
So we have a remarkable gospel message today, one that should occupy a special place in our Christian identity. Whenever things seems utterly overwhelming, desperate and hopeless, we should always be aware of the Lord walking clearly above such a turbulent maelstrom which no earthly power can control, but which he can, for he carries with him the ultimate hope and refuge for all who believe.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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