One of the best-loved passages of Scripture, the story of Jesus ‘walking on the water’ inspired the Fathers of the early Church to some excellent exegesis. As usual, I offer a selection of what seems to me the most striking passages.
St John Chrysostom comments on the example Jesus sets when he goes up into the mountains to pray; solitude and seclusion are good for us when we pray to God. The disciples find themselves, as we do so often in our lives, in a storm, and though they do not apprehend it at first, Jesus is there for them, reaching out to them, as he does to us. In that storm, feeling abandoned, their hearts reach out for support to the One who is always there if we will have faith.
St Augustine sees the boat as a symbol of the Church, rocked and shaken by the storms of the world, temptation and the devil; it alone carries Christ, and he will not abandon it; we should stay in that boat and reach out to him; when all human contrivances and the devices and desires of our hearts fail, then we cry out, as they did, to God, and he comes, even through the winds of the storm; but he is not the wind and he is not the storm; he is the still, small voice.
Chromatius reminds of that the miracle of the walking on the water was foretold in Job 9:8, Psalm 77:19 and Habakkuk 3:10, and Sirach 25:4-5; the disciples, being pious men, saw these prophecies fulfilled and believed.
St Hilary of Poitiers sees significance in the timing of the Lord’s coming. He will come, for the fourth time, to save a roving church in danger of ship=wreck; even in the fourth watch of the night, the deepest darkest time, he will come, because he loved us first:
But he will find the Church is 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.
And he will speak to those in fear who know not which way to turn, and who are terrified by the false appearance of things, and he will say ‘It is I’ – and we shall have no fear, and the winds will be calmed, and we shall know He is the Lord indeed and we are His children and the sheep of His pasture.
Chromatius sketches out the four watches thus: the first watch was from Adam to Noah, the second from Noah to Moses, through whom the Law was given. The third watch was from Moses to the coming of the Lord. The fourth watch comes with the Incarnation and Resurrection; He will be with us, even to the end of earthly time.
Chrysostom points out thst he does not come to them at once, nor does he remove from them their fears, for it is through these trials that they learn; we, like them, must learn to endure, even in the darkest night and the fiercest storm; he does not encourage them, or us, to be too hasty in seeking deliverance, for we are to bear the challenges bravely, as befits disciples of the Lord; and it is just when they look for deliverance that their fear is, once again, heightened.
St Jerome comments upon the part played by St Peter. He loves the Lord and is the first to see, through the Grace of God, that He is the Messiah, but he is a man whose passion can mislead him; so he does not want him to die – even though he must; he goes to Mt Tabor with him and wishes to stay there – even though he must come down to meet his appointed fate; he follows him to his Passion – but denies him thrice. Here, too, when the others hesitate, Peter’s passion for God makes him bold, and with ardour, steps out onto the waves to meet his master. But, again, his passion is not commensurate with his faith, and he falls – but the Lord picks him up and sustains him, even though he notes his weakness; so it is with us and for us. In due course, Peter will confess his sins and be forgiven – so too it is with us and for us.
He does not require from us, any more than he did from them, perfection of understanding, and he knows how frail our faith can be, but he is there, he reaches out to us, and when we sink, he will sustain us.