At first, you might have thought He was putting some distance between Himself and the crowd, trying to get away from people’s demands. He has done this before, slipping through the crowds when accusers wanted to attack Him; or sensing someone in the crowd had taken power from Him, when it turned out that the woman with the bleed touched Him for healing.
But this is no act of escape. The true meaning of this story is not that He left the people behind on dry land, but that He “entered in”. He entered into a boat and from a vantage point actually turned back toward the crowd to drawn it into His world of the Spirit.
“Enter in” – where have we heard that phrase before? Think back to Christmas:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today…
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today…
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord, Emmanuel.
This story of the Lord, getting into a boat, coming among His people, is a story of the incarnation, of the God of heaven taking human form and voice, to be the Word of God living among humanity. The significance of the boat is that it alludes to another ark – the Ark that preserved God’s creation from the Flood and brought it to salvation. This Ark in turn alludes to the Ark of the Covenant, the throne of the Great King in the Temple, that held both the Law and the presence of God among His people. To us in the Church, both of these are vivid symbols of the Mother of God, who is often referred to as the Ark, on whom sits the Lord as God made Flesh, Emmanuel, God among us, and in Person the very arrival of salvation.
So it is that in the Theotokion for today we sing to the Mother of God,
“The Master of all became flesh in you, the Holy Ark … you have become wider than the heavens carrying your Creator. Glory to Him Who freed us through birth from you.”
We often think of heaven as our destination after life, and the world as the path of struggles we take to it. But truly the Kingdom comes to us here. Christians do not believe in life after death; we believe in eternal life now. “Death has vanished,” we declare, and Eve is “redeemed from bondage now” – now, not at some point in the future. We sing, “You arose … and gave life to the world” – here to the world, not hereafter to its faithful few survivors. This is what the fishermen saw, especially when the Lord told them, in that luminous phrase, to “put out into the deep water”, asking them too, like Him, to “enter in” to something; something now all round them, yet something they had never known to look for before. Because here, in the deep water, is the breadth of the heavens – don’t get confused by the story – carrying not more fish than the nets can haul out of the sea, but hauling out their Creator Whom they cannot contain. Simon Peter beholds what Jesus is, and what he himself is standing before Him, having beheld the deep. Here is humanity, inadequate, failing by its own efforts, frustrated by its limitations, undermined by its shortcomings, sinful and self-defeated. Yet here too is the Creator, Who does not steer clear of what He has made but enters into it.
Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee - the crowds too - have seen the Word of God and heard Him. Just as this Word turn from heaven to face the people, so too these people have been made, by the very entry of God into their midst, to turn round and face themselves in the deep. They experience amazement, but also do not like what they begin to see about themselves. As St Luke puts it, they were filled, but “begin to sink”.
Simon Peter’s words speak for us all in the face of the Kingdom of God that constantly comes to us, not as some afterthought to our life on earth, but arriving whenever we too put out into the deep water and attend the Liturgy, say our prayers, or behold the majesty of the Creator and Redeemer set in comparison beside so much suffering and cruel disfigurement of the goodness and beauty He has made in the world and our humanity. Simon Peter, who has ventured beneath the surface of life, says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. We join him at every moment when we say, “Lord, have mercy, Hospodi pomylui, Kyrie eleison”. But Simon Peter’s words are also prophetic, the gift of his realisation of the Kingdom standing before him in Person, that - he has also found - lies within. The Lord has entered in, and Simon Peter has begun to behold the Kingdom of God; so why does he ask the Lord to go away from him? He realises that there is more putting out into the deep to be done. If Jesus does not now go on His way, the fishermen have no way to go either. If Jesus does not move ahead, they have nothing and no one to follow.
So Christ enters in, casts out their sin. The boat that almost sank under the weight of a miracle of heaven, is the Ark of Salvation that bears God among us on earth, “born in us today”. The deep water is not in the lake, but the Kingdom of God that would well up from within us and flood us into being a superabundance of the coming of heaven to the world.
For it is we who are to be the Resurrection – this is why Christ turns to face us with it, eternal life entering in now, not after. For this the disciples left everything and followed Him. For this we join the heavenly powers crying out, “O Giver of life, glory to Your kingdom; glory to Your saving plan, O only Lover of mankind.”
No life else but Christ’s eternal life! No one else but Christ loves us so much as to enter in, cast out our sin and be born in us today. “O Virgin … Glory to Him Who freed us through birth from you.”