The Gospels are not long documents. The events which comprise the public ministry of Jesus are presented to us in the briefest possible terms and the Evangelists move very rapidly from one incident to another.
A typical novel usually has about 90,000 words while the length of the Gospels varies from around 11,000 in Mark to just over 19,000 words in Luke. So, we are talking about considerably less than a quarter the size of a typical paperback book.
Every Catholic home should have a Bible or at the very least a copy of the four Gospels. But it shouldn’t just stay on the shelf, it should be in the corner where we say our prayers. When we pray it is good to have the Gospels within easy reach. We might surprise ourselves at how often we consult them during prayer. We might be also surprised at how this expands our knowledge and love of the Gospels.
The extract given for our consideration today is taken from chapter fourteen of Matthew’s Gospel but this chapter includes an awful lot of material. It contains the death of John the Baptist, the multiplication of loaves and Jesus walking on the water. And all this is in just 660 words, which is about one side of a sheet of A4 paper.
Not a word is wasted, the Evangelists confine themselves to a direct account of what happened. They simply present the facts and refrain from comment. This is good, because it gives their readers an unbiased account of what Jesus said and did. And that is their intention, they want their readers to evaluate Jesus on the specifics and not on someone else’s opinion.
Let us take a look at the text given for our consideration today. Jesus sends his disciples off in the boat telling them to go to the other side of the lake while he goes up into the hills to pray. Just before dawn, as they battle with the heavy sea, the disciples encounter Jesus walking on the water and not believing this is possible they conclude he must be a ghost.
At this point Jesus tells them not to be afraid. As if to test whether this really was Jesus or not, Peter asks Jesus to invite him out of the boat so that he too can walk on the water. When Peter flounders Jesus chides him for his lack of faith. But when they get into the boat the other disciples profess their faith in the words, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’ Interestingly, these are almost exactly the same words uttered by the Centurion later on in Matthew’s Gospel as he stood by the Cross of Calvary.
It is a wonderfully simple account of a most extraordinary event which can surely be counted among Jesus’ greatest miracles. We are also given an example of Peter’s impetuosity as well as his lack of faith. Peter surely wants to believe but he is found wanting at the last moment. Jesus chides him; not as a condemnation but in a rather gentle and supportive way. ‘Why did you doubt?’ he says.
An interesting point to note is that this event occurred shortly before dawn. This is significant. The Sea of Galilee is not that big being only eight miles wide and, even with the wind against them, with some judicious tacking the disciples should have been able to cross it in a couple of hours.
The point though is that the timing is symbolic. Jesus comes to them shortly before dawn. And by this Matthew is inferring that it is shortly before the moment of greatest importance in the history of the world, he means us to understand that this encounter with Jesus walking on the water occurred shortly before the events that brought about our salvation.
The stress by Jesus on the importance of faith is also very pertinent. He, of course, knows that Peter will deny him later in the High Priest’s house. But Jesus knows too that after his resurrection he will, beside this same lake, rehabilitate Peter. And he is also well aware that this Peter is the one he has chosen to lead the whole Church and who would keep faith with him even unto death.
The image of Christ walking on the water and his lifting up of the sinking Peter is a favourite one in the history of art. It is also commonly to be found in stained glass windows in country churches and it is an image that most of us immediately recognise and often find ourselves drawn to. We find the picture so attractive because it seems to sum up our own situation in life.
Like Peter we want to believe but at the last minute, also like him, we are assailed by doubts. We want to walk on the water of faith but we find ourselves sinking. And our prayer at that moment is that Christ will reach out to us and save us from drowning. However, we understand that it is our desire to believe that we need to hold on to rather than our doubts.
Actually, what we see here is something rather important. First of all, Peter reaches out to Christ as he attempts to walk towards him on the water. But then Christ reaches out to Peter to save him from drowning. I think that this two-fold action is essential to all true faith.
When we profess our faith, we reach out to Christ and at the same time he reaches out to us. If we can realise that this is what is happening when we express our faith I am sure that we will all find it very helpful. If we can imagine that the hand of Christ is always there stretched out to save us from drowning then in times of doubt we will feel far less anxious.
Our tendency is to think of faith as a one-way street but this is not correct. After all, we know that faith is, first and foremost, a gift from God. Faith then is a mutual process and both God and ourselves have a part to play.
As we have seen, God initiates faith first by placing the desire to believe in him in our hearts. Over the course of time we feed this desire through prayer and our study of the Gospels. Then at appropriate moments we reach out to God, placing all our hope and trust in him, despite whatever doubts we may be experiencing. God in turn reaches out to us and grasps our hand and helps us into the boat. The boat representing, of course, the Church.
We see then that faith is something mutual. We see that the events taking place on that stormy sea are replicated in our own lives. We marvel at this process and find ourselves ever more emboldened and strengthened in our faith as we continue our lifelong pilgrimage in the direction of the Kingdom.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket