A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew:
After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”
All Jesus wanted was some time to Himself.
It’s no wonder that He did. The fourteenth chapter of Matthew begins with the murder of John the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin. This wasn’t one of the relations of Jesus who showed up to demand to speak to him in the twelfth chapter of Matthew. This was the prophet who had leaped in the womb when the Virgin Mary approached carrying Jesus; the prophet who recognized Jesus when he came to be baptized in the Jordan. John might have been the only relative who understood Jesus even a little, besides the Blessed Virgin. Now John was dead, in the most public and traumatic way. Jesus would be next, and Jesus knew it.
Jesus had tried to go off into the mountains to mourn privately, but a crowd numbering in the thousands found him out. He patiently fed them and healed their sick, and then he sent them and the apostles on their way. Again, he tried to go off by himself for an evening.
The apostles got into trouble within five minutes. A quarter of them were fishermen and they still couldn’t keep the boat under control. They found themselves miles offshore, buffeted by waves, unable to get any further, and that’s where they stayed until the fourth watch of the night.
The fourth watch of the night is between three and six in the morning.
They’d been up all night without rest, just trying to keep the boat from capsizing. They were exhausted.
That’s when Jesus catches up with them, walking on the waves.
How did they see him walking on the waves, in the middle of a terrible storm, in the dead of night?
Was he glowing with that same terrible light that would scare Peter, John and James half to death later, in Chapter Seventeen, at the Transfiguration?
Maybe so, because the apostles were scared to death. “It’s a ghost!” they cried.
“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Fat chance of that.
Peter, the brash one, always has something to say at times like these and it’s never in any way helpful. Tonight is no exception. He takes charge, ridiculously. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus plays along. “Come!”
Peter, the fisherman, well aware of how harebrained this stunt is, hops out of the boat onto the storm-tossed sea. It goes surprisingly well for a few seconds. He keeps his eyes on Jesus and nothing matters at all. He’s walking on the water, to the consternation of the eleven in the boat. And then, of course, he makes the Warner Brothers mistake. He stops to observe his surroundings and realizes that this is impossible. All his bravado leaves him. He can’t even remember how to swim. The fisherman who spent his whole life around water and makes his whole living in boats panics, and sinks like a rock.
“Lord, save me!”
Jesus catches the burly fisherman with one hand. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
For once, Peter has nothing to say.
They get into the boat together, and at that moment, the storm is quelled.
Jesus rides with them over to Gennesaret, where he will heal the sick and feed the multitude again.
Maybe this is a story about Jesus’s inept companions getting into trouble while he’s gone.
Maybe it’s a story about Peter’s faith in getting out of the boat in the first place, and maybe it’s a story about his lack of faith in not getting very far.
Or, maybe it’s not about the apostles at all. Maybe it’s a story about a grieving God who knows our weakness– a god who comes down from his place of solitude to rescue his friends in the fourth watch of the night.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.