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
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
I have chosen to pause after this verse of the weekend Gospel so that we can relate to the fear of the disciples. During these turbulent times, we know what it is like to be in the midst of several storms. As I write these words tornado warnings are in effect locally while we see the effects of Hurricane Isaias on the entire East Coast. Moments ago, I heard of the horrific blast in Beirut, Lebanon, and it rocks me to the core, especially as I think of friends from that area who must be so concerned for their loved ones. It’s as if we are getting hammered by winds in every direction.
Imagine that the disciples thought the end was near. The appearance of a ‘ghost’ may have been interpreted as a sign that their lives would be lost. In their imagination, perhaps, the ghost was coming to take them with him. It appeared hopeless but it was not. The image they saw was actually that of Jesus coming to them ‘during the fourth watch of the night’.
In Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire had kept the ancient tradition of seeing days only in terms of daylight. If the sun rose at 6:00 am and set at 6:00 pm, sun dials would tell them that the ‘day’ lasted twelve hours. That is why we interpret the ‘ninth hour’ described during the Stations of the Cross as being 3:00 pm. The night had a mystical quality all its own. The Romans however divided the night into watches where guards would take turns in four sections, approximately three hours a piece. It’s interesting that Matthew would have used a military-type term but don’t forget the guards also made a community safe. Jesus was about to bring them all back to safety. He will be their salvation.
The fourth watch was also the bridge to daylight. Jesus appears to the disciples and brings them out of the storm into the calming sea of tranquility. Notice how the next verse, coming right after ‘they cried out of fear’ demonstrates the immediacy of Jesus’ grace in their situation, in our situation: “At once Jesus spoke to them, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’” (Matthew 14.27) The disciples were relieved but not confident; they did not respond, in turn, ‘at once’ and were still very much afraid. Peter, for one, used the moment to test Jesus as often we find ourselves doing. No matter how present God is for us, it takes a while for us to perceive the storms of our life settling down and be able to see the dawn of a new day.
Ultimately, Jesus Christ will bring us healing. He will give us courage as we feel the divine presence and our fears will subside. God will be our salvation. You may have heard that more than once this week as we have faced the aftermath of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Isaias. Isaias is the Latin derivative of the Hebrew name, Isaiah, the great prophet. The biblical meaning of the name Isaias/Isaiah is “God is our salvation!” That’s rather ironic during the active storm but rather poignant to remember after. God bless you!
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