Lord, Save Me
Gospel Reflection for August 13, 2023 - Matthew 14:22-33
As soon as this was done, he prevailed upon his disciples to take ship and cross to the other side before him, leaving him to send the multitudes home.
When he had finished sending them home, he went up by himself on to the hill-side, to pray there; twilight had come, and he remained there alone.
Meanwhile the ship was already half-way across the sea, hard put to it by the waves, for the wind was against them.
And then, when the night had reached its fourth quarter, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.
When they saw him walking on the sea, the disciples were terrified; they said, It is an apparition, and cried out for fear.
But all at once Jesus spoke to them; Take courage, he said, it is myself; do not be afraid.
And Peter answered him, Lord, if it is thyself, bid me come to thee over the water.
He said, Come; and Peter let himself down out of the ship and walked over the water to reach Jesus.
Then, seeing how strong the wind was, he lost courage and began to sink; whereupon he cried aloud, Lord, save me.
And Jesus at once stretched out his hand and caught hold of him, saying to him, Why didst thou hesitate, man of little faith?
So they went on board the ship, and thereupon the wind dropped.
And the ship’s crew came and said, falling at his feet, Thou art indeed the Son of God. (Matthew 14:22-33 Knox Translation)
One of the most common arguments made against the divinity of Christ is an exegetical concept called “emerging orthodoxy.” According to this scheme, the Church only began to think of Christ as equal to and a Person of the Trinitarian Godhead toward the end of the first century, whereas, they say, the earliest followers and their writings, including the Synoptic Gospels and St. Paul’s “undisputed” letters, only portray Christ as a holy man who may have been given divine power but was not treated as God. For this reason, these “scholars” tend to view St. John’s Gospel, in which Christ’s divinity is more explicit, as not written by the apostle and dated much later than the other Gospels. This interpretation echoes that of early heretics, such as Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ and His equality in the Godhead but does so in a more “scientific” and modernist way.
The readings for this Sunday are one of many proofs that this approach is patently false. The Synoptic Gospels make it clear that Christ is God, but they do so in a way that is subtle, speaking through the language of biblical prophecy and typology, so that only those who have ears to hear would hear, for the same reason Christ frequently used parables when preaching to the masses but made His meaning more explicit in private to the apostles. Likewise, in this great miracle of the walking on the sea, Christ is shown to be God not only by His power over the natural world, which is not the result of prayer (as with Moses) but comes from Himself – He also shows it by directly mirroring our first reading. Just as there were four phases in Elias’s wilderness experience, with God speaking to him in the fourth part, there were four quarters of the night that the apostles were on the sea, and in the fourth, Christ appeared and spoke to them. The meaning of the Lord speaking to them through the winds was not lost on the disciples, who worshiped Him and called Him the Son of God.
These four quarters of the night, like Elias’s four winds, represent the different forms of trial, temptation and distraction Christians face from the world, the flesh and the devil, analogous to the three wasted seeds out of four from Christ’s Parable of the Sower. Each of these sources of sin contrives to distort the Faith and divert the course of holiness, but there is always one opening, the least glamorous and impressive in the world’s eyes, whether a whisper in silence, rich nourishing soil or a humble carpenter, through which God speaks. Like Elias and St. Peter, this voice can at first inspire fear of God in the conviction of our sinfulness and frailty, but it culminates in loving obedience. In many cases, the greatest obstacles in life inspire courage and heroic sacrifice in us, while the smaller seductions of daily life, which can seem insignificant and easily excused by comparison, prove to be more dangerous, as it was for Peter: “Peter overcame that which was greater, the waves, namely, of the sea, but is troubled by the lesser, the blowing wind, for it follows, But seeing the wind boisterous, he was afraid. Such is human nature, in great trials ofttimes holding itself aright, and in lesser falling into fault.” (Chrysostom, Catena Aurea)
In another sense, God allows terrible calamities, like Elias’s earthquake and fire and the apostles’ tempest, for the sake of human freedom and the training in virtue which suffering offers: “Teaching them not to seek a speedy riddance of coming evil, but to bear manfully such things as befal them. But when they thought that they were delivered, then was their fear increased… For this the Lord ever does; when He is to rescue from any evil, He brings in things terrible and difficult. For since it is impossible that our temptation should continue a long time, when the warfare of the righteous is to be finished, then He increases their conflicts, desiring to make greater gain of them; which He did also in Abraham, making his hot conflict his trial of the loss of his son.” (Chrysostom, Catena Aurea)
These interactions by Elias and Peter with God bear important messages for Christians today. With all the grave evils perpetrated throughout the world, with horrific violations of human dignity and brutal persecutions of the faithful, when even the Church with all its scandals and confusion can sometimes seem more like another burden instead of a sanctuary from life’s storms, we should remember that God remains King, that the Lord only allows evil so that He can work greater good from it and that the Holy Spirit is always within us, offering us peace and joy which surpass all understanding, even when our own mind and body rebel against us, so long as we cling to Christ above all else: “But while Christ prays on high, the boat is tossed with great waves in the deep; and forasmuch as the waves rise, that boat can be tossed; but because Christ prays, it cannot be sunk. Think of that boat as the Church, and the stormy sea as this world… Dost thou love God? Thou walkest on the sea; the fear of this world is under thy feet. Dost thou love the world? It swallows thee up. But when thy heart is tossed with desire, then that thou mayest overcome thy lust, call upon the divine person of Christ.” (Augustine, Catena Aurea)