Have you ever tried to walk on water? When I was a boy, I went out back to the swimming pool and gave it a try. It didn’t work too well.
Of course, Peter walking on water is a miracle. To walk on water is outside the ordinary, natural course of our abilities. Jesus gives Peter a miraculous grace, something extraordinary, something above nature—supernatural—so that Peter can walk above the water. This is the reality of Jesus: He wants to raise us above what we ourselves consider to be our upper limits to our natural capacities. Jesus wants to take us beyond what we have gotten used to or think is our limits.
I had the pleasure of being able to go to Colorado for a few days with a couple of friends. One of them had never hiked in the rarified air there, where trails are above 12,000 feet. If you have ever had the joy of hiking in elevations that high, you know of the possibility of altitude sickness. That’s where a person starts to get a headache, or dizzy, or disoriented; sometimes even nauseous. It can be pretty miserable. Of course, people endure that possibility because the views at the tops of mountains are pretty phenomenal.
So my friends and I are hiking to a lake above 12,000 feet and my friend starts to get altitude sickness. Now, when this starts to happen, there are voices that start to talk to you in your head—like in the cartoons when you see a little red demon one shoulder and a little white angel on the other shoulder. The white angel whispers “Hey, it’s going to be alright. It’s just a little altitude. You’re gonna make it. You’re not going to die.” The little red demon, however, tries to get you to panic and give up. He says, “Oh my gosh! You’re going to die! Give up! You’re never going to make it!” and so on.
In this moment, my friend sits down on a rock and I can tell she is starting to listen to the discouraging voice. “This rock is fine. There’s a fine view here. You’re too sick, too tired. This is as good as it gets. This is your upper limit.”
I see this and I look at her and say with some seriousness: “My dear, get up. You’re going to make it.” (She would later tell me that she hated me in this moment). But we were only 200 feet from the top. And she was going to make it. She just had to trust—and pray. And believe.
Which is what we did. We started praying the Rosary during those last steps. My brother, an avid hiker in Colorado, once told me that he prays the Rosary when he is facing those hard inclines. Last time we hiked, he said, “Ant, the Rosary is always worth a solid 400 feet of elevation.” It’s true. So, there we are, on the side of the mountain, praying the Rosary. And my friend is thinking about Jesus and about Mary and she is receiving grace. One step at a time, we go beyond what she thought was possible.
And before we knew it, we made it to the top. As my friend saw the beautiful lake and the mountains surrounding it, she put her hands up to her face in astonishment: yes, this view is beautiful; so much better than that rock. And not only that—she began to weep with joy: she had made it. She didn’t think she could make it, but she made it. I got a little weepy, too. No one was ever going to take this away from her. And this memory would always be with her.
I thought about Peter: after he walked on water, no one was ever going to take that away from him. That memory would always be with him. And he would need that for the next time Jesus called him from beyond the comfortable boat of self-contentment—for the next time Jesus stretched him beyond what Peter thought was the upper limit of his capabilities.
Because that’s what’s going on here. I mean, when Peter is called from the boat, there must have been some trepidation: “Jesus, are you sure? I mean, you aren’t really serious, are you? No man has ever walked on water….” Yes, this is beyond Peter’s limits. And with that comes the fear of failure: “Lord, if I do this, I might fail. What then?”
This is where our Lord says to us, “Take courage! Be not afraid. It is I.”
And who is this? This is Jesus, whose name means “God saves.” Yes, when Peter fails, when Peter takes his gaze off of Jesus and Peter sinks, Jesus plunges His hands into the water and pulls Peter up. This is Jesus’ promise: “if you come out of the boat, even if you fail, I will pull you up. You must trust me.”
And yeah: we’re scared: we see the storm, the waves; we hear the wind—all of the things of the world that distract us and grab our attention away from Jesus—we know that our boat is tiny and the storm so big. And the mission to walk on water—it seems so impossible. Yes, it is beyond the upper limits of our abilities. But our Lord calls us anyway: “Take courage! Be not afraid! It is I.” He is going to give us grace to take us to places beyond our wildest imagination—beyond our upper limits.
From heaven, above the waters above us, He is going to plunge His hands into our existence. (You’ll notice the sky is blue; the Old Testament called it the waters above us). God is going to plunge His hand into our lives and pull us up out of “these waters” so that we may walk on “these waters”—that is, if we walk above these waters, we are in heaven.
You see, the red demon on our shoulder wants us to be content just sitting on that rock, thinking “this life—this life is as good as it gets.” And we do that with a lot of things. We look at that difficult relationship with our parents or siblings or co-workers and we say, “Well, that’s as good as it gets.” Or we think we have reached the upper limits of holiness or the upper limits of our ability to forgive—“that’s the best as I will get.” But no! Don’t listen to that voice. Listen to the “little whisper of God” from our first reading who tells us that He is going to raise us up to higher places.
He wants more for you. This is an even greater level of holiness that He will bring to you—a level, yes, that is beyond your natural capacity—but a level that is not beyond the power of His grace.
“Call me out of the boat!” Peter says. That’s our prayer. “Lord, call me out of my self-contentment. Call me out of my funk and my thoughts that this is as good as it gets. Call me out of my doubt and help me to believe. I want to walk on water, Lord! I want to reach those beautiful heights above these waters, Lord!”
When and where will God give this grace? The answer is found in the timing of the miracle. That is, note what happens before and after the walking on water. Before the miracle, Jesus fed the five-thousand with five loaves and two fish. After the miracle, Jesus taught the people that “the bread I will give you is my flesh for the life of the world.” In other words, in the storm, Jesus shows the apostles that the loaves and fishes are not enough to save them, but the Eucharist—the Eucharist is going to be that supernatural grace that will save them from drowning in the stormy waters of death. It is the Eucharist where the supernatural joins with the natural, the extraordinary with the ordinary, where our lives are lifted beyond what we think are the upper limits—and are indeed drawn upward by the divine hand into heaven.
Here, on this “mountain, the Lord of hosts” will provide for His people with the grace to save us and raise us up. Here, at this Holy Mass, Jesus calls us from the boats of fear and anxiety and self-contentment—He calls us to trust Him.
And when He stretches us and we do those things we never thought we could do, we will—like my friend on that mountain—weep tears of joy. And I’ll probably joyfully weep with you. Because it’s beautiful. And nobody will ever be able to take that from you.