While studying this gospel (Matt 14:22-34), I came upon something curious in Matthew 14. Evening comes twice. Today we hear that evening came while Jesus was alone on the mountain (Matthew 14:23). And yet it was when evening came that his disciples had earlier called his attention to the need of the crowds for something to eat (14:15). We read the passage last Sunday. Each repeats the exact phrase: “And evening was come.”[i] How does evening come twice? Why does evening come twice?
Sure, the word can refer to a whole range of time from early evening until late evening, but why use the same phrase twice? Mark doesn’t do this in his account of these two sequential events. He makes a clearer distinction between a “late hour” for the first and “evening” for the second (Mark 6:35, 47). But Matthew duplicates the same phrase twice.
Objectively, I suppose, evening comes once a day. That’s the rhythm. On the other hand, I don’t know about you, but I have experienced evenings coming twice – especially since I have had children.
That is, a time comes each evening when I am ready to be done with the day. And many times, at this point I turn in. I go to my room. I shut the door. I get into bed. Perhaps I begin to read a book or even go to sleep. I have withdrawn from the crowds to a lonely place apart, so to speak (cf. Matt 14:13).
But then, the door will burst open! Or, a wailing from another room will be sounded. And the needs of the family will reassert themselves. And what I thought was the beginning of the evening will turn out not to have been so, at least subjectively. Many times, these needs will have something to do with getting a glass of water or a bedtime snack.
Incidentally, did you know that many cultures eat their dinner later on in the day than the Americans tend to? 6 o clock is our traditional evening meal time, I suppose. Well, when I was in the seminary, I would often come upon a Sicilian professor of ours eating at more like 8, which I found a little bit odd. Until I realized that was simply the way they do it. Many things we think of as normal or universal are really just our own cultural assumptions.
So it was not unusual, actually, that Jesus wanted to feed a whole crowd of people when it was already evening. In any case, as I say, I find myself doing the same thing many times, even when it is not my plan or intention. You might say I have compassion on the crowd (cf. 14:14). The crowd of children at my door anyway.
Well then, after this crisis is averted there comes what we might think of as a second evening. The intentions I had at the first evening reassert themselves and I once again withdraw to a lonely place and evening begins again (cf. 14:23). So, on some level I can relate to the two comings of evening at the end of one day.
And what Jesus goes through in Matthew 14 is not wholly dissimilar. Evening comes. He intends to withdraw to a lonely place (14:13). But the crowds follow him and he takes pity on them and addresses their needs (14:13-14). He heals their sick and feeds the hungry (14:14-20). And then evening comes again. And he withdraws again to a lonely place.
What can we learn about Jesus from this? One thing is, he will at time allow himself to be interrupted by us, like a father who loves his children allows himself to be interrupted by them. He will listen to us and address our needs. He set out to be alone for a while, but he allowed the crowds to delay that – not prevent it, but delay it. He has compassion on us.
We can see in good and loving families an image of our relationship with God. I remember what it’s like to be a child who cannot sleep after our parents have gone to bed. I remember the intense yearning to go and be with them where they are. And those of us who are parents know now the other side of it as well. The need to sometimes be alone. But also the love for our children and the willingness to sometimes let them in even when it’s inconvenient. There’s an incarnate image of God’s love for us in this.
But then, Jesus finishes what he started before being interrupted by the crowds. He instructs his disciples to cross the sea on ahead of him and leave him (14:22). And then he dismisses the crowd of thousands, whom he has just fed with the five loaves and two fishes. And then he goes up on the mountain alone (14:23). He stays there alone in prayer most of the night.
Meanwhile, his disciples are in distress. Their boat is beaten by the waves and the wind is against them. But Jesus does not come straight to their rescue. Mark says he can see them out there in the storm (Mark 6:48), perhaps from his vantage point on the mountain, but he lets them flounder in that boat most of the night.
And these are his closest disciples. Peter is among them. He had compassion on the crowds, but we might ask, where is his compassion for his disciples? Sometimes we feel like this while we’re weathering the storms of life. It’s storming outside today. Last I checked, there’s a flash flood watch until 2pm. But worse that this are our personal storms – the things we suffer in our relationships, illnesses of mind and body, the deaths of our loved ones. Aren’t we the Lord’s disciples? Won’t he take pity on us and deliver us?
Yes, he is coming. But sometimes he allows his disciples to wait all night. After I have sent my children to bed for the second time, I often expect them to stay there until morning. They often do not want to, but there comes a time when I must put my foot down, even though they do not understand why. The Lord, too, will sometimes delay his coming, though we do not understand why.
But he does come. Jesus walks on the water to his disciples on the sea in the fourth watch of the night, which is really just before dawn – a time we nowadays more usually call early morning (Matt 14:25).
This give us a beautiful image of Jesus coming to us in the midst of the storm at the rising of the sun. At the irmos of ode 9 on Sunday in the 5th tone, at Matins, which is traditionally celebrated not long before the rising of the sun, we sing of Jesus, “His name is rising of the sun.” Or, “Orient is his name.” This is also sung at weddings and ordinations. The rising of the sun is an image of the coming of the Lord. He is coming, after the long and stormy night. As surely as the sun will rise, he will come. When we’re in the midst of the storm, we may doubt it. But he will come. And when he comes, he will calm the storm and the wind will cease (cf. 14:32).
Though he comes to his disciples only after the passing of the night, whereas he allowed the crowds to interrupt him, and this is a difference between these two stories, they also have much in common. According to Matthew, evening comes twice, and both times Jesus goes off to be alone, and both times he has compassion on the people and then ministers to them, first the crowds and then the apostles. Perhaps with this duplication, Matthew is calling our attention to the similarities between these two miraculous stories.
The multiplication of evenings draws attention to a multiplication of the Lord’s coming to his people. There is the ultimate, final, and second coming of the Lord at the end of days. But there are other comings which point to that ultimate coming. There is the coming for which we wait while we are buffeted by storms and there are the comings of the Lord in the meantime, which comfort and sustain us as we wait.
We experience these comings of the Lord perhaps especially through the holy mysteries of the Church, each of which is an encounter with the Lord. Baptism is a coming of the Lord into our lives. And the Lord’s walking on the water and delivering his disciples on the sea is an image of baptism. Holy Communion is a coming of the Lord into the church, and the bread which the Lord multiplies to feed the crowd is an image of the Eucharist. Furthermore, we experience the coming of the Lord through loving one another.
[i] ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης