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As a Deacon in the Catholic Church, I have the joy of proclaiming the Gospel during Holy Mass. The Gospel account two Sundays ago is one of my favorites. It is also one which is familiar – almost too familiar – to most of us. I say “too familiar” because we can tend to simply stop listening when it is proclaimed because we have heard it so often!
We make the mistake of thinking it is only about Peter and the disciples – something distant which happened over two millenia ago. The fact is this story is meant for you and for me – for the here and now! We live much of our daily life in the “fourth watch of the night”, at the time just before daybreak.
Our daily lives seem to be lived in the midst of tumultuous waves of struggle. We are often filled with fear and crippled as a result and unable to see the Lord right there, on the horizon of hope. This story shows us the way to overcome fear through faith. It invites us to live differently, to walk on the waters of daily life by dynamic, living faith:
“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.”(Gospel of St. Matthew 14: 22-33)
It is important to remember these wonderful Gospel stories within the context. The disciples had just returned from experiencing the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.
They had seen the Lord take what little bread that they had, multiply it, and give it back to them – so that they could feed the very crowd they had suggested be sent away. They knew that he was able to work miracles – and that they had been invited to participate in this extraordinary act of love, by simply giving the little they had.
After it was all over, they even collected up twelve baskets full! Now, He just wanted to pray, to commune with the Father. So He placed them in the boat, which the early Christian Fathers saw as an image of the Church, the new Ark of the New Covenant. It was the “fourth watch of the night”, the last four hours right before dawn.
That “fourth watch” always included the darkest hour. The winds and sea raged and they became horribly afraid. Their fear was so crippling that they did not even recognize Him as He came toward them. They thought that God Incarnate was a “ghost”. “Take Courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” He spoke with such reassurance and tenderness.
How often do we live our lives in the fourth watch of the night? Our fears so cripple us that we are unable to even recognize the Lord, the One who is always there, always coming to guide us on His way. He invites us to respond in faith as well. When we do, faith helps us to overcome our fear and walk into freedom.
That is what we see happening with Peter in this wonderful account. He responded in faith to the voice of His Lord. When he kept his eyes focused on Jesus he was able to do what seemed to be impossible. When he walked by faith, he walked into the freedom that comes from Jesus, the Lord of the winds and the sea.
We live our lives now in Jesus Christ and we are at home in the Boat of the Church. We can always find Him in the fourth watch of the night, if we choose to respond in faith. When we turn our faith into a verb, we too get our “sea legs” as they say in the nautical culture.
We also learn a new way of living- and of loving. Fear simply becomes a field of choice, an occasion for trust. Even in the fourth watch of the night, there is a bridge between fear and freedom, it passes through Jesus who tells all who will fix their eyes upon Him “Take Courage; it is I; Be Not Afraid.”