Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 7, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen
If you ever go to Sicily, be sure not to miss the cathedral in Monreale, a small city not far from Palermo. Built by the Normans in the twelfth century, its interior is covered from floor to ceiling with beautiful mosaics. The principal ones tell the biblical stories from creation to Pentecost, the life and deeds of Christ, and the life of the Blessed Virgin. On either side of the main sanctuary, two smaller areas are covered with mosaics depicting the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the series on St. Peter contains a beautiful representation of today’s Gospel.
While the other disciples watch the scene from their tiny boat, we see Peter half-sunk beneath the waves while Christ’s arm reaches out and grasps Peter’s desperately stretched-out arm. Peter looks rueful: perhaps he has just heard Christ rebuke him for his “little faith.” The artist has understood perfectly the point of this story in St. Matthew’s Gospel: as elsewhere Peter is a symbol of the Church, of the community of disciples, that is, of us as a group and as individual Christians.
To catch the significance of the scene, we have to recall that in the Scriptures water, or the sea, is often a symbol of chaos and evil, of forces hostile to God and to his people. Thus at creation there is a primal sea out of which God must draw order. The great flood brings the first creation to an end, and Noah and his family must make a new beginning. In the Psalms, drowning is often a metaphor for the poet’s distress: “Rescue me, God, for the waters have come up to my neck! … May I be rescued from my foes and from the watery depths. Let not the flood waters overwhelm me! (Ps 69:1, 15-16). Thus also power over the sea illustrates God’s transcendence. Listen to how God replies to Job’s complaint: “And who shut the sea within doors, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands, when I set limits for it and fastened the bar of the door, and said: ‘Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!’” (Job 38:8-11) And earlier in the same book, God is described as “walking upon the crests of the sea” (Job 9:8).
In today’s Gospel scene, then, the Evangelists offer a dramatic demonstration of their belief in Christ. When we see him coming toward the disciples walking on the sea, we are meant to see Christ displaying his divine authority and power. The scene is an invitation not so much to take it literally as if we were just watching a video of a very unusual event as to hear Christ addressing us when he tells the disciples: “It is I. Do not be afraid!”
We are also invited to see ourselves in St. Peter. In enthusiasm he first asks to be allowed to participate in Christ’s power by walking on the water, but as soon as he feels the wind against him, he falters and begins to sink. At two other points in this Gospel, he displays the same ambiguity. He articulates the disciples’ faith that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and Christ declares him blessed because he has received this from God himself and gives Simon the new name Peter because he will build his Church on him. But only six verses later, we find Peter rebuking Christ because he was predicting his passion and death, and now Christ gives him yet another name, Satan, because he is thinking in human terms, not in God’s terms (Mt 16:17, 23). Then on the very eve of the suffering of Christ, Peter exclaims that even if everyone else abandoned Christ, he would never do so (Mt 26:33); but as the events unfold, we find Peter denying Christ not once, not twice, but three times.
It is in this combination of faith and uncertainty and weakness that Peter appropriately symbolizes the Church, symbolizes us. To undertake a serious Christian life has something in common with stepping out of the security of a boat and trying to walk on water, and as long as we keep our eye on Christ, we can actually do that. But when the wind of some conflict between what Christ wants and what the world proposes arises, or when some difficulty in life blows in our face, we often begin to waver and start to sink. (St. Augustine applied this to people in the Church whose desire for honor and power threatened to drown them.) In such moments we should remember that Peter had enough faith left to make his simple plea: “Lord, save me!” And we can make it all the more confidently because we know from today’s Gospel that Christ’s hand is always stretched out towards us sinners.