It was not a long voyage across the lake — five miles at most. The water was calm when Jesus sent his disciples off. In such conditions, they could row across in two hours at most. Should a favorable wind come up, they would hoist the sail and reach the other shore in half that time.
Jesus’ friends were disappointed when he refused to join them. He insisted, however, that they set off alone. He would get passage in another boat the next day. Otherwise he would hike round the lake and join them. Meanwhile Jesus needed to be alone. Following the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, which we heard about in last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus needed to spend time in prayer, restoring his spiritual energy as he waited upon God in stillness through the night.
What began as a routine evening crossing of the lake soon turns into a nightmare for Jesus’ friends in their small boat. Still today Galilean fishermen fear the treacherous storms caused by cold winds blowing off the surrounding hills, creating a sudden tempest in the warm air covering the low-lying water. The storm which breaks on the disciples so unexpectedly this evening comes from just the direction in which they are heading. Against wind so strong, and waves so high, they can make no headway. But the disciples know they must not allow the boat to be driven back to the shore they have left. The waves could dash them against the rocks, smashing their frail craft and everyone in it. Their only hope is to ply the oars as long as the storm continues, trying to remain a good distance from the land, in deep water.
This explains why they are still far from their destination in “the fourth watch of the night.” The night, in those days, was divided into four equal periods or watches. If there were eight hours of darkness, each watch would be two hours long. Assuming that they had embarked before nightfall, they would have been in the boat seven hours at least. They are exhausted, soaked to the skin, cold, and frightened. Small wonder, then, that they cry out in fear as they see a human figure approaching across the wind-whipped waves. It is Jesus. “Take courage,” he calls out. “It is I, do not be afraid.”
One man in the boat is more impulsive than his companions. He no sooner recognizes Jesus than he wants to be with him. He will react in the same way upon recognizing the risen Lord on the shore after a fruitless night of fishing in the lake. (Cf. Jn. 21:7) It is Peter. “Lord,” Peter calls out, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus replies.
Peter’s willingness to do the unthinkable enables him to experience the impossible. He climbs out of the boat and starts to walk to Jesus across the storm-tossed waves. “But when he saw how strong the wind was,” Matthew tells us, “he became frightened. And, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’”
Jesus had a special role for Peter. He was to be the leader of Jesus’ friends and thus of the Lord’s Church. This terrifying experience was part of Peter’s preparation. Years later he would remember: as long as he had kept his eyes on the Lord, he was safe. When he looked down, and saw the danger, he began to sink.
Every detail in this story has rich symbolic significance for Matthew, the gospel writer. Like most people in antiquity, Jesus’ people, the Jews, regarded the sea as the domain of supernatural, demonic forces. To the Hebrew mind wind and waves were perilous: only God could master them. When Jesus’ people were fleeing from bondage in Egypt, they were terrified to find themselves trapped between the advancing army of their former masters, and the impassable waters of the Sea of Reeds ahead of them. In this desperate crisis, God had led them through the waters to safety. Their pursuers had perished. They never forgot it. Repeatedly the psalms speak of God’s power to “rule the surging sea and calm the turmoil of its waves” (Ps. 89:10; cf. 93:3f; 107:23-30). By walking on the raging waves, and calming the stormy sea, Jesus shows himself to be acting as only God can do.
The boat too is significant. From biblical times Christians have viewed the Church as a boat, carrying those who are in it safely through the storms of an often hostile world, like the ark which kept Noah and his family safe amid the great flood. In the midst of the media firestorm about the abuse of minors by some priests, Bishop Wilton Gregory, then bishop of Belleville and President of the Bishops’ Conference of our country, and now archbishop of Atlanta, spoke to St. Louis priests about this painful crisis. In his talk, he referred to the story in today’s gospel. We’re in that boat, he told us. And like the disciples, we’re frightened. But Jesus is with us. He still has power to still wind and wave. “Ought we not to realize,” he said, “that we have within this Bark of Peter, which is being so terribly tossed about in the public arena, the source of calm and peace. We priests and bishops must be more devoted to our life of prayer as the only reliable source of courage and hope that will bring peace to our troubled hearts and souls.” Bishop Gregory’s words were the message we needed to hear during that terrible chapter in our church’s history.
This beautiful story speaks also to each one of us individually. Somewhere right now there is someone facing a personal crisis: an illness, perhaps, your own or that of a loved one; a family problem; a humiliating failure; the sudden collapse of long held hopes, plans, and efforts. You are filled with fear. When you look down, you see only peril and ruin. But look up! Keep your eyes on Jesus. He still has power to save.
The story assures us that when the storm rages and the night is blackest; when we cannot see the way ahead; when we are bone weary with life’s struggle and our hearts fail us for fear, Jesus is close. He only seems to be absent. In reality he is never far from us. He knows at every moment the difficulties against which we contend. Across the storm waters of this world he comes to us and chides us, as he chided Peter: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Happy if we today, in this hour, can respond to the Lord’s saving presence and power as his friends did in that boat. Happy if we too can bow before him in awe-struck worship and say, with those first friends of Jesus: “Truly, you are the Son of God!”