Augustine of Hippo
ON THE WORDS OF THE GOSPEL, MATT. XIV. 24, " BUT THE BOAT WAS NOW IN THE MIDST OF THE SEA, DISTRESSED BY THE WAVES."
1. THE lesson of the Gospel which we have just heard is a lesson of humility to us all, that we may see and know where we are, and whither we must tend and hasten. For that ship which carries the disciples, which was tossed in the waves by a contrary wind, is not without its meaning. Nor without a meaning did the Lord after He had left the multitudes, go up into a mountain to pray alone; and then coming to His disciples found them in danger, walking on the sea, and getting up into the ship strengthened them, and appeased the waves. But what marvel if He can appease all things who created all? Nevertheless after He was come up into the ship, they who were being borne in her, came saying, "Of a truth Thou art the Son of God." But before this plain discovery of Himself they were troubled, saying, "It is a phantom. But He coming up into the ship took away the fluctuation of mind from their hearts, when they were now more endangered in their souls by doubting, than before in their bodies by the waves.
2. Yet in all this that the Lord did, He instructs us as to the nature of our life here. In this world there is not a man who is not a stranger; though all do not desire to return to their own country. Now by this very journey we are exposed to waves and tempests; but we must needs be at least in the ship. For if there be perils in the ship, without the ship there is certain destruction. For whatever strength of arm he may have who swims in the open sea, yet in time he is carried away and sunk, mastered by the greatness of its waves. Need then there is that we be in the ship, that is, that we be carried in the wood, that we may be able to cross this sea. Now this Wood in which our weakness is carried is the Cross of the Lord, by which we are signed, and delivered from the dangerous tempests s of this world. We are exposed to the violence of the waves; but He who helpeth us is God.
3. For in that when the Lord had left the multitudes, "He went up alone into a mountain to pray;" that mountain signifies the height of heaven. For having left the multitudes, the Lord after His Resurrection ascended Alone into heaven, and "there," as the Apostle says, "He maketh intercession for us." There is some meaning then in His "leaving the multitudes, and going up into a mountain to pray Alone." For He Alone is as yet the First-begotten from the dead, after the resurrection of His Body, unto the right hand of the Father, the High Priest and Advocate of our prayers. The Head of the Church is above, that the rest of the members may follow at the end. If then "He maketh intercession for us," above the height of all creatures, as it were on the mountain top, "He prayeth Alone."
4. Meanwhile the ship which carries the disciples, that is, the Church, is tossed and shaken by the tempests of temptation; and the contrary wind, that is, the devil her adversary, rests not, and strives to hinder her from arriving at rest. But greater is "He who maketh intercession for us." For in this our tossing to and fro in which we toil, He giveth us confidence in coming to us, and strengthening us; only let us not in our trouble throw ourselves out of the ship, and cast ourselves into the sea. For though the ship be in trouble, still it is the ship. She alone carrieth the disciples, and receiveth Christ. There is danger, it is true, in the sea; but without her there is instant perishing. Keep thyself therefore in the ship, and pray to God. For when all counsels fail, when even the rudder is unserviceable, and the very spreading of the sails is rather dangerous than useful, when all human help and strength is gone, there remains only for the sailors the earnest cry of entreaty, and pouring out of prayer to God. He then who grants to sailors to reach the haven, shall He so forsake His own Church, as not to bring it on to rest?
5. Yet, Brethren, this exceeding trouble is not in this ship, save only in the absence of the Lord. What! can he who is in the Church, have his Lord absent from him? When has he his Lord absent from him? When he is overcome by any lust. For as we find it said in a certain place in a figure, "Let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil:" and this is understood not of this visible sun which holds as it were the zenith of glory among the rest of the visible creation, and which can be seen equally by us and by the beasts; but of that Light which none but the pure hearts of the faithful see; as it is written, "That was the true Light, which lighteneth every man that cometh into the world." For this light of the visible sun "lighteneth" even the minutest and smallest animals. Righteousness then and wisdom is that true light, which the mind ceases to see, when it is overcome by the disordering of anger as by a cloud; and then, as it were, the sun goes down upon a man's wrath. So also in this ship, when Christ is absent, every one is shaken by his own storms, and iniquities, and evil desires. For, for example, the law tells thee, "Thou shall not bear false witness." If thou observe the truth of witness, thou hast light in the soul; but if overcome by the desire of filthy lucre, thou hast determined in thy mind to speak false witness, thou wilt at once begin through Christ's absence to be troubled by the tempest, thou wilt be tossed to and fro by the waves of thy covetousness, thou wilt be endangered by the violent storm of thy lusts, and as it were through Christ's absence be well nigh sunk.
6. What cause of fear is there, lest the ship be diverted from her course, and take a backward direction; which happens when, abandoning the hope of heavenly rewards, desire turneth the helm, and a man is turned to those things which are seen and pass away! For whosoever is disturbed by the temptations of lusts, and nevertheless still looks into those things which are within, is not so utterly in a desperate state, if he beg pardon for his faults, and exert himself to overCome and surmount the fury of the raging sea. But he who is so turned aside from what he was, as to say in his heart, "God does not see me; for He does not think of me, nor care whether I sin;" he hath turned the helm, borne away by the storm, and driven back to the point he came from. For there are many thoughts in the hearts of men; and when Christ is absent, the ship is tossed by the waves of this world, and by tempests manifold.
7. Now the fourth watch of the night, is the end of the night; for each watch consists of three hours. It signifies then, that now in the end of the world the Lord is come to help, and is seen to walk upon the waters. For though this ship be tossed about by the storms of temptations, yet she sees her Glorified God walking above all the swellings of the sea; that is, above all the principalities of this world. For before it was said by an expression suited to the time of His Passion, when according to the flesh He showed forth an example of humility, that the waves of the sea vainly raged s against Him, to which He yielded voluntarily for our sakes. that that prophecy, "I am come into the depths of the sea, and the floods overflow Me," might be fulfilled. For He did not repel the false witnesses, nor the savage shout of those that said, "Let Him be crucified." He did not by His power repress the savage hearts and words of those furious men, but in patience endured them all. They did unto Him whatsoever they listed; because He "became obedient to death, even the death of the Cross." But after that He was risen from the dead, that He might pray alone for His disciples placed in the Church as in a ship, and borne on in the faith of His Cross, as in wood, and in peril through this world's temptations as through the waves of the sea; His Name began to be honoured even in this world in which He was despised, accused, and slain; that He who in the dispensation of His suffering in the flesh, "had come into the depths of the sea, and the floods had overwhelmed Him," might now through the glory of His Name tread upon the necks of the proud as on the foaming waters. Just as we now see the Lord walking as it were upon the sea, under whose feet we behold the whole madness of this world subjected.
8. But to the perils of tempests are added also the errors of heretics; and there are not wanting those who so try the minds of them that are in the ship, as to say that Christ was not born of a Virgin, nor had a real body, but seemed to the eyes what He was not. And these opinions of heretics have sprung up now, when the Name of Christ is already glorified throughout all nations; when Christ, that is, is as it were now walking on the sea. The disciples in their trial said, "It is a phantom." But He giveth us strength against these pestilent opinions by His own voice, "Be of good cheer, it is I; be not afraid." For men in vain fear have conceived these opinions concerning Christ, looking at his Honour and Majesty; and they think that He could not be so born, who hath deserved to be so Glorified, fearing Him as it were "walking on the sea." For by this action the excellency of His honour is figured; and so they think that He was a phantom. But when he saith, "It is I;" what else doth He say but that there is nothing in Him which does not really exist? Accordingly if He showeth His flesh, it is flesh; if bones, they are bones; if scars, they are scars. For "there was not in Him yea and nay, but in Him was yea," as the Apostle says. Hence that expression, "Be of good cheer, it is I; be not afraid." That is, do not so stand in awe of My Majesty, as to wish to take away the reality of My Being from Me. Though I walk upon the sea, though I have under My feet the elation and the pride of this world, as the raging waves, yet have I appeared as very Man, yet does My Gospel proclaim the very truth concerning Me, that I was born of a Virgin, that I am the Word made flesh; that I said truly, "Handle Me, and see, for a spirit hath not bones as ye see Me have," that they were true impresses of My wounds which the hands of the doubting Apostle handled. And therefore "It is I; be not afraid."
9. But this, that the disciples thought He was a phantom, does not represent these only, does not designate them only who deny that the Lord had human flesh, and who sometimes by their blind perverseness disturb even those who are in the ship; but those also who think that the Lord has in anything spoken falsely, and who do not believe that the things which He has threatened the ungodly will come to pass. As though He were partly true, and partly false, appearing like a phantom in His words, as though He were something which is "yea and nay." But they who understand His voice aright, who saith, "It is I; be not afraid;" believe at once all the words of the Lord, so that as they hope for the rewards He promises, so do they fear the punishments He threatens. For as that is true which He will say to those who are set on the right hand, "Come, ye blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;" so is that true, which they on the left hand will hear, "Depart ye into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his Angels." For this very opinion, by which men think that Christ's threatenings against the unrighteous and the abandoned are not true, has arisen from this, that they see many nations and multitudes innumerable subject to His Name; so that hence Christ appears to them to be a phantom, because He walked upon the sea; that is, He seems to speak falsely in His threats of punishment, because, as it were, He cannot destroy such numberless people who are subject to His Name and honour. But let them hear Him, saying, "It is I;" let them not therefore "be afraid," who believing Christ to be true in all things, not only seek after what He hath promised, but avoid also what He hath threatened; because though He walk upon the sea, that is, though all the nations of men in this world are subject unto Him; yet is He no phantom, and therefore He doth not speak falsely, when He saith, "Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."
10. What then does Peter's daring to come to Him on the waters also signify? For Peter generally stands for a figure of the Church. What else then do we think is meant by, "Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come unto Thee on the water;" but, Lord, if Thou art true, and in nothing speakest falsely, let Thy Church also be glorified in this world, because prophecy hath proclaimed this concerning Thee. Let her walk then on the waters, and so let her come to Thee, to whom it is said, "The rich among the people shall entreat Thy favour." But since to the Lord the praise of men is no temptation, but men are ofttimes in the Church disordered by human praises and honours, and well nigh sunk by them; therefore did Peter tremble in the sea, terrified at the great violence of the storm. For who does not fear those words, "They who call thee blessed cause thee to err, and disturb the ways of thy feet?" And because the soul hath much wrestling against the eager desire of human praise, good is it in such peril to betake one's self to prayer and earnest entreaty: lest haply he who is charmed with praise, be overwhelmed and sunk by blame.
Let Peter cry out as he totters in the water, and say, "Lord, save me." For the Lord will reach forth His hand, and though He chide, saying, "O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" wherefore didst thou not look straight forward upon Him to whom thou wast making thy way, and glory only in the Lord? Nevertheless He will snatch him from the waves, and will not suffer Him to perish, who confesses his own infirmity, and begs His help. But when they had received the Lord into the ship, and their faith was strengthened and all doubt removed, and the tempests of the sea assuaged, so that they were come to a firm and secure landing, they all worship Him, saying, "Of a truth Thou art the Son of God." For this is that everlasting joy, where Truth made manifest, and the Word of God, and the Wisdom by which all things were made, and the exceeding height of His Mercy, are both known and loved.