Man Overboard by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
Then he made the disciples get into the 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 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 him, 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."
All miracles are by definition out of the ordinary. Yet almost all of our Lord's miracles have something of the ordinary about them. When He healed, for example, He did not give people superhuman powers. He merely restored to them what every person should have. To the blind He gave sight, but not X-ray vision. The lame walked at His command. But they did not sprout wings and fly. He raised Lazarus to life - but not yet to eternal life. Lazarus had to live out the rest of his years as an ordinary man, and die again, before he could enter heaven.
A notable exception to this rule of the ordinary is St. Peter's walking on the water. Here we do see a man suddenly able to do more that other men, indeed exercising a superhuman power. And, significantly, our Lord grants this privilege not just to any disciple, but to Peter - the "Rock" on whom He builds His Church (Mt 16:18). In fact, we can use this miracle to understand our Lord's gift of authority to St. Peter and his successors.
First we must understand that our Lord's walking on the water was not just an amazing stunt. It was an act that revealed His divinity. Scripture describes God as having authority over the waters. He divides the Red Sea in two, turns the Jordan back on its course and "treads upon the crests of the sea" (Jb 9:8). Our Lord's walking on the water indicates just such authority and thus reveals His divinity. To confirm this, He says to the Apostles, "It is I" - literally, "I am" - the very name the Lord revealed when He spoke to Moses through the burning bush (Ex 3:14).
St. Peter's walking on the water is clearly a confirmation of his faith in Christ's divinity. St. Peter himself gives this interpretation before the miracle occurs: Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water" (Mt 14:28). But we miss the point if we see it as only that. For by walking on water, St. Peter performs the same incredible action as our Lord. He acts in the likeness of Christ. More to the point, he performs the same miraculous action that reveals Christ's divinity. St. Peter's walking on water indicates that our Lord has given him a share in His divine authority.
So, the scene provides an apt image of the pope's authority. The pope - St. Peter and his successors - possesses headship over the Church on earth, which is at least as difficult and amazing as walking on water. The pope holds the authority even to speak infallibly for the entire Church. Of course, our Lord alone is the Head of the Church. But each pope, from Peter to Benedict, is the "Vicar of Christ," the one who stands in His place to teach, rule and sanctify with His authority.
If viewed in merely human terms, this authority is terrifying, dizzying and might give us a sinking feeling. In the view of the world, according to human wisdom, no man can possess the authority of God on earth any more that he can walk on water. So also St. Peter, when he took his eyes off our Lord and lost the supernatural outlook, began to sink.
Here then is a lesson for us - that we can never take our gaze off Christ nor regard the pope except in the light of Christ. The Catholic Church does not view the pope apart from Christ, or from a worldly, merely human perspective. Papal authority proceeds from faith in Christ as the Son of God, and directs us to Him Who "treads upon the crests of the sea."
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