In the fourth watch of the night
Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A) | Fr John Farrell reflects on what the Lord says to us in our darkest and most unsettling moments.
Jesus walks on the waters of the sea of Galilee. It is the middle of the night. Three hours to go before dawn will break – “the fourth watch of the night”.
It had been a full day – to say the least – 5,000 men plus women and children had followed him into the open countryside. There, in the late afternoon, in the spring sunlight, on the green slopes above the seashore he had fed them all with the breaking of the blessed bread and the fish.
As the feast was ending Jesus had ordered his disciples to get into their boat and cross over to other side of the sea. He himself stayed behind. First, courteously, he personally sends off the crowds back to their homes and their ordinary lives. Then, alone, he heads up into the hills, to pray. At the quiet ending of that momentous day there is a love both of God, his Heavenly Father, and of his neighbour. A receptivity to both with all his heart and soul and strength.
Now in the darkness and the wind he comes to his own, walking on the waters. “Do not be afraid. I am with you. Take heart.” As so often, he assumes that the opposite of faith is not unbelief but fearfulness, anxiety, timidity or paralysing dread.
The disciples on the boat are not at this point caught up in a storm. It is rather a matter of a strong head wind and high waves battering the boat in the open sea. They have lost control. They are getting nowhere. Directionless. Out of their depths.
You have to ask why Peter says what Peter says. What puts it into his head? It is such a strange request: “Lord if it is you, tell me to come to you across the waters”.
“Come,” says Jesus. Peter steps out of the boat and across the waves towards Jesus. And then, hit by the blast of the wind and the collapse of his faith, he falters and flounders. Immediately, immediately, without a gap, Jesus stretches out his arm to save him and leads him back to the boat. “O man of little faith why did you doubt?
Now all of this is happening “in the fourth watch of night”, (in our terms, from about 3am). It is that lonely weak point when our fragile humanity is at its weakest and most vulnerable to fear. There can be few of us who have not woken up at this point in the night, emerging from a deep sleep into confusion and swamped suddenly by anxieties as things from the past flood in on us. Or fears for the future, or what the next day will bring, overwhelm us. We are incapable of reasoning as the turbulence overtakes us and terror drags us down. Like Peter on the waters we are out of our depth, directionless and panic filled.
Perhaps then it is at these times that the Christian disciple is to say into the darkness, “Lord if it is you, tell me to come to you across these dark waters.” And for us to hear the voice of our compassionate master saying once more, “Come, take courage, I am with you.” And to feel too the touch of his outstretched hand and the gentle rebuke, “O ye of little faith why do you doubt? I am with you, with an outstretched arm”.
So as this short story ends, something of shimmering beauty has been revealed in the darkness, and a firm foundation of courage and hope in God has been given in the midst of the turmoil of the sea. Back in the narrow confines of the boat they worship the cherishing vastness of the divine presence: Jesus. Son of God and Son of Mary. I AM with you.
“Do not be afraid for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers they will not overwhelm you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you. Do not be afraid for I am with you.” (Isaiah 43. 1-5).
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a window in Ely Cathedral.