Saint John Chrysostom: Jesus’ Walk on the Sea – 112 August 2014
‘And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up into the mountain apart to pray: and when evening came, He was there alone. But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed by waves:for the wind was contrary’.
Why did He go up into the mountain? To teach us that solitude and retirement are good, when we are to pray to God. With this in mind, you see, He continually withdraws into the wilderness, and often spends the whole night in prayer there, teaching us to seek earnestly the quietness in our prayers that the time and place affords. For the wilderness is the mother of quiet; it is a calm harbour, delivering us from all turbulence.
He Himself, then, went up with this object, but the disciples were tossed by the waves again, and endured a storm as fierce as the earlier one. But whereas before they had had Him in the ship when this befell them, now they were by themselves. In this way, gently and by degrees, He encourages them and spurs them on to better things, to the extent of bearing up bravely. We see that the first time they were in this danger, He was present, though asleep, and could quickly relieve their fears; but now, leading them to a greater degree of endurance, He doesn’t do this, but leaves them alone. He permits a storm to arise when they’re on the open sea, so that they might not so much as look for any hope of preservation from any quarter. And He leaves them at the mercy of the storm all night, I imagine in order to pierce their hardened hearts.
This was the nature of their fear, which was produced by the coincidence of the timing and the foul weather. And as well as contrition, it also caused longing for Him and a vivid recollection of Him.
So He didn’t appear to them at once. ‘In the fourth watch of the night’, it says, ‘he went to them, walking upon the sea’, thus teaching them not to be in a rush to seek deliverance from their pressing dangers, but to bear all that befell them manfully. Be that as it may, just when they were expecting to be delivered, their fear was heightened: ‘When the disciples saw him walking on the sea’, it says, ‘they were troubled, and said, “It is a spirit”, and they cried out in fear’.
This is what He always does. When He’s on the point of removing our terrors, He brings us even worse and more alarming things, just as He did then. Apart from the storm, the sight [of Him walking on the sea] troubled them as much if not more. He neither dispelled the darkness, nor immediately revealed His identity, training them, as I said, by allowing their fear to continue, and teaching them to be ready to endure. This is what He did in the case of Job, too: just when He was on the point of removing the terror and the temptation, He permitted the end to become even more taxing. I don’t mean here his children’s death, or the words of his wife, but the reproaches both of his servants and of his friends. And when He was about to rescue Jacob from his affliction in the foreign land, He allowed his trouble to be aggravated, in that, first of all his father-in-law [Laban] overtook him and threatened him with death, and then his brother [Esau] coming immediately after that, placed him in extreme danger.
We cannot be tempted both long and hard: so when the righteous are on the point of coming to an end of their conflicts, He, wishing them to profit more greatly by them, intensifies their struggles. Which He did in the case of Abraham, too, appointing for his last conflict the one concerning his son. In this way, even things otherwise intolerable will become tolerable, when they’re visited upon us, just before their removal, at the last gasp.
That is what Christ did in this instance, too, and refrained from revealing Himself before they cried aloud: the more intense their alarm, the more they welcomed His coming. Then, after they’d exclaimed, it says, ‘Jesus immediately spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer, it is I; do not be afraid”’.
These words removed their fear and gave them confidence. They didn’t recognize Him by sight, because of the miraculous manner of His progress, and because of the time, so He revealed Himself by His voice.