There are two stories of Jesus and the sea. In the first, he and his disciples are caught in a storm, as they cross the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat, but the storm becomes so bad that the boat begins to fill with water, and the disciples are terrified and so they rouse Jesus, who ‘rebukes the wind, and commands the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.’ The second story is similar, though this time the disciples were alone in the boat, when a storm blew up. But then ‘about the fourth watch of the nights Jesus came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.’
What are we to make of these two stories? Some people will reply, “What do you mean, ‘make of them’? There is nothing to ‘make of them’. They just happened; that’s all.” Others, I suspect, will want to believe that both stories are accounts of actual events, but will find it very hard to do so, and may feel ashamed that they doubt them. Others yet again - and these are almost certainly the vast majority - will automatically write them off as nonsense. Storms may cease from time to time - indeed, they do - but people don’t walk on the water; and even if Jesus did so, what would that prove?
It is a good question. Maybe instead of squabbling over whether the story of the walking on the water happened or not, we should go along with the sceptics and ask ourselves, ‘Even if it did happen, so what? What would that prove, if anything?’ And we can answer that, only after we have first asked what the sea signified to the Jews of Jesus’s day. For, while to us the sea is a place for pleasure cruises, seaside holidays, swimming, surf-boarding, sun-bathing on the beach, fishing from the pier or spinning for mackerel from the rocks, to the Jews of Jesus’s day, the sea was very different - deceptive, dangerous, and destructive - liable at any moment to swallow men up and drown them.
Only by a conquest of the sea by God had life been made possible. ‘The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ It is a tremendous image, conjuring up a vision of the Spirit of God brooding upon the sunless waste of the old primeval sea like mist in an act of creation, from which came light and life and love and hope; and down the centuries it has proved to be an image of immense evocative power. Throughout the whole Bible the sea represents all that is destructive, evil, and anti-God - the realm of death and the devil. The sin of Adam sets in train a series of lethal events, which leads eventually to the coming of the Flood, when the old primordial waters return to drown an evil world, and claim their own.
Jonah too, running away from God, is thrown into the angry deep to be swallowed up by a great fish - a type of the great Leviathan, itself a type of the Prince of Evil. A Psalmist cries out in distress, ‘If the Lord himself had not been on our side, now may Israel say….the waters had drowned us; the deep waters of the proud had gone even over our soul.’ Another celebrates the power of God over the evil of the world. ‘The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee and were afraid; the depths also were troubled.’ But - perhaps most movingly of all - yet another old Jewish poet, close to despair, turns to his God and pleads with him. ‘Save me, O God, for the waters are come in even unto my soul. I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is, I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me…. O let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters. Let not the water-flood drown me, neither let the deep swallow me up.’ But the most conclusive evidence that the sea was regarded as symbolic of the realm of disorder, destruction, and evil - indeed, virtually equated with it - and thus opposed to the realm of God, is to be found in the last book of the New Testament. The Revelation of St John the Divine, in which the author records his vision of the end of the world and the coming of the kingdom of God.
‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.’ You cannot be more explicit than that. When God is all and in all, the realm of evil will cease to exist.
All that, of course, is a tissue of myth and ancient symbolism; but it must not be despised or written off as nonsense on that account. Jung, arguably the greatest of the psychologists with a great respect for myths of all kinds, classed the sea as one of the great archetypal images of mankind, fundamental and unchanging, identifying it with our unconscious minds, from which arise the kind of dreams, anxieties, and old irrational fears, which we all know so well. At least, I imagine that we do so. How many of us have never cried out with the author of Psalm 60, ‘Save me, O God, for the waters are come in even unto my soul…I am come then into deep waters, and the floods run over me’? Very few, I suspect. One need not even be religious to react in such a way to the deep wells of irrational fear and darkness, which rise up within us from time to time for no apparent reason and threaten to drown us.
According to Jung, they come from unconscious memory of that aboriginal ocean, in which we all had our beginning; and this I find fascinating. For here the old myths and images on the one hand, and science and psychology on the other, come together and light each other up. For if there is one thing we know today, it is that life began in the old pre-Cambrian seas some two thousand million years or so ago. I am no expert on palaeozoic methods of reproduction, but whatever may have been the case, when the first primitive life forms reproduced themselves by splitting in two, certainly a few millions of years later, when fish appeared on the scene, life in the old ocean was indescribably hazardous. In order that the species should survive at all , the females laid enormous numbers of eggs, until the sea was awash with them, for the males to fertilise; and there they were left to grow, unprotected by their parents. Needless to say, very few did so, for competition and predation were lethal, and life in the old primeval sea was pitiless and short. Later, as we all know, amphibians and reptiles went one better by laying comparatively hard shelled eggs on land - shells containing miniature seas, in which their young could develop, until they were ready to hatch - and the survival rate went up; while later still mammals did even better, enclosing their offspring in their own bodies, immersed once again in a little sea of amniotic fluid, in which they could grow before emerging to face the hazards of the world.
Thus the sea - some sort of sea - still encloses our beginnings, and there in nine short months we go through the whole process of evolution; within a short period after our conception we develop things very like gills and a tail, our hearts beat, and we make small movements much as tadpoles, still in their eggs, begin to wriggle after a day or two. It is an astonishing process, the antenatal growth of a child from an inseminated egg; and the journey through the physical evolution of our species, as it develops in its miniature sea, is accompanied by a no less astonishing process of instinctual, emotional, and intuitive growth; for which of us does not emerge from our mother’s womb already equipped with all the old built-in reactions to danger, all the deeply buried aggressions of our race, the latent sexual drives, and even the in-born tribal loyalties, territorial imperatives, and their corollary, xenophobia, which are common to other social animals spawned and brought up in the darkness and inherent dangers of the old foetal seas, over which in the beginning God brooded and brought forth life and light?
Indeed, how much else, not only in our personal lives, but also in our corporate, social, and national lives wells up from the darkness of our unconscious group-minds (if we have such things), conditioned as they have been by nine months in a miniature version of that old shark-infested sea of our evolutionary beginnings, and spills out in tides of evil and war? Was it from such depths that the old anti-God forces welled up and engulfed the glossy and supremely self-confident world of 1914, submerging mankind in a new flood? And later, when as a young man I joined the Army in 1939 and watched my friends blown to bits, as the Jews were gassed in Belsen and Buchenwald, and saturated bombing of open cities killed millions of women and children? If not, I don’t know where these floods came from.
So back to the man who is said to have walked on the sea and stilled the storm. The reaction of the disciples was to ask incredulously, “What manner of man is this that the waves and the sea obey him?”, and by telling the stories, the Evangelists pose the same question to us. Indeed, that is why they included them in their gospels; and I don’t believe that anyone will be able to answer the question they pose, until, like the disciples, one of life’s storms arises around them and - almost despite themselves - they cry, “Save me, O God, for the waters are come in even unto my soul;” until they see Christ walking towards them over the black waters of one of the world’s evil and destructive storms, rebuking the winds of their distress and producing a great calm. When the storms rise and a man’s life is threatened by the waves, he will know the truth of the story of Jesus walking on the waters and stilling the storm. It is a truth, which our world needs to discover, if it is to survive far into the twenty-first century; for there has seldom been a time when human beings, both personally and corporately, have been in greater need of a sea-walker than they are now.