19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 14:22-33
Jesus made the disciples get into a boat […] he went up on the mountain by himself to pray […] 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. […] “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” […] the wind died down.
Let us be entirely clear on this point: Our Savior’s walking on the waters was an historical event which really and truly occurred on the Sea of Galilee, as narrated by the Evangelists. It is sad that some of the rationalists doubt this point. Could not he who rose from the dead likewise walk on water? Indeed, the grace which filled Christ’s soul and which overflowed also into his body at his Resurrection likewise gifted his body (when our Lord so willed) so as to enable him to walk on water. The power by which he rose and the power by which he walked on water are one and the same: His soul enjoyed the beatific vision from the first moment of his conception.
In addition to the plain sense of the letter (i.e. the literal or historical sense) there is also the mystical or spiritual sense. According to the spiritual sense of the passage, the things (e.g. the disciples, the boat, the mountain, the water) signify other things. This shall be the focus of our little meditation.
The Senses of Scripture
The literal sense is that meaning which is conveyed by the words themselves – even if this meaning is not known to the human author who wrote those words. (cf. CCC 116) This sense includes metaphors (e.g. "The arm of God", or "The Lord is my shepherd").
The spiritual (or mystical sense) is that meaning which is conveyed not immediately by the words themselves, but by the things which the words signify.
Hence, the literal sense of the story of the testing of Abraham is the historical fact of Abraham offering up (and nearly sacrificing) Isaac, but receiving him back alive. The spiritual sense of the story is that God sacrificed his own Son, and received him back alive after the Resurrection.
Both the literal and the spiritual senses are true and are intended by God, who is the primary author of Scripture. The only difference between them is that the spiritual sense so exceeds the human understanding that it can only barely be grasped, and not at all without supernatural grace. For this reason, the literal sense (which can be discovered by men) must be the foundation of all theology.
Additionally, the literal sense has a certain ontological primacy over the spiritual – a thing can’t signify another thing (by the spiritual sense), until it is first itself signified by a word (according to the literal sense). The words first convey a meaning (in the literal sense), then this meaning conveys another meaning (in the spiritual sense).
A spiritual interpretation of the walking on the water
Every detail of the story contains a wealth of fodder for spiritual commentary. We shall simply point out what seems to us to be the most solid and spiritually enriching aspects.
The disciples: Signify the faithful of the Church Militant
The boat: The Church herself, during her earthly sojourn
The sea and the water: The world
The mountain: Heaven
The evening: The centuries which have passed
The waves and the wind: Persecutions and trials
The fourth watch of the night: (literally, this is the last portion of the night during the longest nights of the year [i.e. during winter]) Christ will come again at the end of time
The Church Militant (the boat) has been established by Christ and filled with the elect (the disciples) who have been chosen and sent forth into the world (the boat sets out upon the sea) while Christ has ascended into heaven (gone up the mountain to pray). However, over the passing centuries since our Lord’s earthy life (when it was evening) the Church has suffered and will continue to suffer many trials and persecutions (the waves and the wind). She will not be destroyed, however, but will remain faithful to the end (the fourth watch of the night) when Christ will come (the walking on water) to judge the living and the dead (the calming of the storm).
Another spiritual interpretation (according to the tropological or moral sense)
The disciples: Signify the virtues, or habitual grace
The boat: The Christian soul
The sea and the water: The world
The mountain: Heaven
The evening: The length of human life
The waves and the wind: Persecutions and trials, and especially temptations
The fourth watch of the night: At the end of a man’s life, Christ will come to him – this is the particular (individual) judgment
The Christian (the boat) who has been called by Christ has also been endowed with grace and with the virtues, as well as with the gifts of the Holy Spirit (the disciples). But, while he has ascended into heaven (gone up the mountain), he sends the soul forth into the world (the boat sets out upon the sea). However, during the earthly sojourn (when evening comes), there are bound to be trials, persecutions, and temptations (the waves and the wind of the storm). However, if only the Christian shall persevere until death (the fourth watch of the night), Christ will visit the soul to strengthen her in this final moment (walking on water). After death (the Lord gets in the boat), the Savior will ultimately bring the faithful Christian to the glory of heaven (the calming of the storm) and to the resurrection of the body (the boat arrives upon the opposite shore).
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide cites St. Augustine: “Let us think of the ship as the Church and the faithful soul. The sea is this world. The wind and the waves are persecutions. When the wind arises, the ship is tossed: but because Christ is there, it cannot sink. But in these temptations let the yard-arm be raised, that, suspended to the mast it may make the figure of the cross. To this yard-arm—that is, to the Cross of Christ—let a sincere conversation and a pure confession, like spotless sails, be attached. Let our sails be washed by the waves; let our garments be stretched out, that they may be found without spot or wrinkle. Lastly: after this ship has been built in Jerusalem, and has been sent forth into the midst of this roaring sea, the billows of the tempestuous waves, and the blasts of the raging winds—whilst they carry her about hither and thither—have borne her to the shores of every nation, and she has taken in a cargo of all the foreign merchandise which she has found.”