The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice, the floods lift up their roaring. Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty! (Psalm 93:3-4)
If one pays attention, it is easy to hear that the sound of moving water can be quite loud, even deafening: the thunderous crashing of waves, the roar of a water falls, the down pour of a heavy rain. Even in our homes, running water in the sink or shower or toilet can be noticeable and can drown out all other sounds around us. In the world of the bible, in which there are no mechanical devices, engines, motors or explosives, the rushing of water was perhaps one of the loudest, and perhaps most terrifying sound people heard or could imagine. It is no wonder that the ancients heard in the rushing of waters, the all consuming, destructive force of chaos which only God could tame and order. Water is necessary for life, but water uncontrolled was nothing but destructive, washing away every bit of human order in its path. When the ancients envisioned a cataclysmic event consuming the entire earth it was not a fiery conflagration but a great flood of water which engulfed the earth. Even the fires of hell were not imagined until a later generation of Israelites, but the terrifying chaos of engulfing waters was imagined by the inspired authors of the Bible from the beginning. God, the Creator of the universe, was understood to be more powerful than the greatest rushing force of flood waters which could sweep across the world. Even the power of water which nothing could stop was afraid of God.
The waters saw You, O God;
The waters saw You, they were afraid;
The depths also trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
The skies sent out a sound;
Your arrows also flashed about.
The voice of Your thunder was in the whirlwind;
The lightnings lit up the world;
The earth trembled and shook.
Your way was in the sea, Your path in the great waters, and Your footsteps were not known. You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:16-20, OSB)
And the waters which cover more than 70% of the earth’s surface were a challenge to navigate for the ancients because of their vastness and because of the unpredictable storms which would sweep across them. Those same vast oceans were an easy path for God to walk upon. This is the imagery of the Old Testament. God alone can walk on the waters without sinking beneath the waves of the sea. Even in the great miracle of Israel’s escape from Egypt, they did not walk upon the waters, but rather the waters parted before them and they walked on dry ground. So, in this context, we come to see that the Gospel lesson of Jesus walking on water is portraying Jesus as Lord and God. It is God alone who can walk on the waters as if they were a path.
The Gospel lesson of St. Matthew 14:22-34 –
Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.
The ancient world knew what threat waters represent when they go over your head or over a ship.
Those great rushing waters and waves send you down into the depths of a watery grave.
The Gospel lesson of Christ walking on water while the disciples were terrified calls to mind the verses from Psalm 107:23-31 –
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men!
In the midst of the storm which is tossing the disciples about on their vessel, they hear the voice of the Lord.
The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, upon many waters. (Psalm 29:3)
It is the voice of Christ who calms both their hearts and the waves of the sea.
“Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
Above the roaring of the waves, the disciples hear the voice of the Lord. The howling of the wind, the thunder, the roaring of the waves are not the loud voice of God the Lord. Amidst the stormy chaos, God’s voice is calming. It is a calm and quiet that silences the raging storm.
“Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
Saint Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) comments on the Gospel of Christ walking on the water:
“ ‘ And in the fourth watch,’ it says, ‘of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea’ (Matt. 14:25). That is to say, after the ninth hour of the night, because it was customary to divide the night into four consecutive watches, and if the night is reckoned as twelve hours long, the fourth watch begins with the tenth hour. He left them to be tormented this long by the waves to exercise them in patience, and make them able to bear hardship. Then when He appeared He allowed them to think He was a ghost and to be so frightened that they cried out with terror, even though He had come to save them (Matt. 14:26).
You may be aware that He did the same with His people of old. Just at the time when He was about to part the sea miraculously to provide a way to safety, they seemed to be in the utmost danger, hemmed in by inescapable evils with enemies all round (Exod. 14:10). In this present case, too, before the Lord released them from the demons’ oppression, those whom He had come to deliver were deeply troubled at His appearance. For this reason His acts of kindness are not only precious to those who benefit from them, but also unforgettable. As they were calling upon the God of all He appeared to them among the waves, showing that He is ‘the God who is over all’ (Rom. 9:5), who stretches out His hand to help all who entreat Him. While the sea raged, He walked upon the waves, amply demonstrating that He is the one of whom it was foretold that He would walk on the sea as on dry land, to whom David had prophetically addressed the words, ‘Your way is in the sea, and your path in the great waters’ (Ps. 77:19), and ‘You rule the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, you still them’(Ps. 89:9), just as the Lord later did. As soon as He saw that they were terrified because they did not recognize Him, for it was dark, He at once spoke to them, making Himself known by His voice and saying, ‘It is I, be not afraid’ (Matt. 14:27). ‘I AM even HE WHO IS the eternal God (cf. Exod. 3:14), and in these latter days have become man for your sake. You can see Me and hear My voice and everything is possible for Me. My body can walk on the waves, and I can enable others to do the same.’ ” (The Homilies, p 254)