In the Gospel for daily Mass on this past Wednesday we read from Mark Chapter 6. It is the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water after having multiplied to loaves and fishes earlier that day.

There is to our modern ears an odd turn of phrase that takes place about midway through the gospel. It says: About the fourth watch of the night, [Jesus] came toward them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them… (Mark 6:48)

This seems odd. Why would Jesus approach them walking on the water, (astounding miracle that it is), and simply mean to pass on by?

The problem is, we think that it means that he will not to stop, but will keep walking passed them. But actually this is not what it means.

This expression of God “passing by” is common in the Theophanies of the Old Testament. For example, when Moses was up on the mountaintop, The text teaches us in Exodus, that he revealed himself to Moses by “passing by.” The text says:

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33: 18-23)

Another example of this is in the appearance he made to Elijah who was hiding in a cave after his flight from Jezebel. At one point, God called him out of the cave so that he could “pass by” The text says,

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 kings 19:11-13)

Some other example of this “passing by are:

  1. When John the Baptist saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:36)
  2. Now hearing a crowd going by, [the Blind Man] began to inquire what this was. They told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he called out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”… (Lk 18:37-38)

Hence, for Jesus to “pass by” is not for him to walk past us in hiding. Rather, it is just the opposite, it is for him to reveal himself to us and summon us to Faith. This is also the case in the Old Testament texts where God “passes by” not to hide, but reveal himself and summon us to faith.

Some may argue that these phrases should be translated differently so that we can better grasp their meaning. Why not just say “He came toward them to reveal himself to them” ??

Perhaps there is some merit in this. But I would counter that more mileage is sometimes gained by the text causing us to ponder, and pray. Consider that in “decoding” this text we have looked at four other passages. Further, we have deepened our appreciation of what it means for God to “pass by.”

What is easy, is not always what is best for us.

20 Responses

  1. David Gardiner says:

    Know well that Our Lord, Jesus Christ has summoned me over so many years, and through so many experiences — to respond to His Call. Monsignor, He spoke and who am I to refuse? Thanks for this post!

  2. Peter Wolczuk says:

    “Why not just say “He came toward them to reveal himself to them” ??”
    If we’re only given (or if we’re willing to settle for) partial information then, a partial – and distorted – truth is almost inevitable. Indeed, may be inevitable in at least some cases.
    Thank you for the clarity.

  3. Robertlifelonfcatholic says:

    I must agree that the term ” passing by ” means that Jesus or God, reveals Himself. When such revelations take place, it is a brief profound experience for the witness leaving them back in their everyday material existence which now seems lacking truth of substantive reality. When God passes, you take notice eventhough one is unable to look upon His face and commune with our present state of mind. We become forever changed and turned away from our proir condition, left to pursue the undeniable truth we briefly encountered. It’s like colliding with a passing beam of light and briefly moving at the same speed with it only to be left behind wondering where it came from and where it went. It leaves you with a sense of eternity. The wind blows where it listeth, and thou hear the sound there of, yet know not from whence it cometh or whither it goeth. Such is the nature of the Spirit. It’s like being run over by an Alpha Omega. A karma runs over your dogma and Wowza!

  4. David F says:

    Maybe a better term in English would be “to parade” because that captures both the display and the motion.

    • Marie says:

      Yes but there’s a connotation of ostentatiousness and worldly show or even deception when using that word (see all the definitions of the verb “to parade” at dictionary.com), so that’s probably not the best word to select. Something connoting holiness and reverential awe (and truth) would be a better pick.

  5. Tom Balistreri says:

    Very insightful. Although this diminishes an interpretation that I always leaned towards.
    I liked to think it was a display of humor on the Lords part.
    Perhaps as he walked upon the water he had a twinkle in his eye as he “meant to pass them by”.

  6. Alex says:

    Wow, I never understood that verse either Father. Great revelation. Also, I can’t believe I am seeing Ernie Hasse and Signiture Sound on a Catholic Priensts’ blog. I was raised in the south and I love Southern Gospel music. I have that DVD as well!

  7. Loreen Lee says:

    Thank you M. Pope for this explanation. When I read this on New Advent on the day of its reading I was confused as I could not understand the meaning. This was also because of the text that referred to the Apostles being ‘hard of heart’ after the Multiplication of the Loaves. (And I have followed Aikens post on this issue). Why would they say that the Apostles were hard of heart. I understand this to be that they might not have understood the significance, that it did not affect them on an emotional level, or that they did not completely ‘understand’ what had happened of something. But I did understand that the passing by was a consequence of Jesus finding them ‘hard of heart’. Is there something that I am still ‘missing’. Thank you.

    • I remember Fr. Francis Martin, a Scripture teacher of mine once telling us that the biggest obstacle we have to understanding God is our sin. And I think that is what the text is getting at here regarding the disciples.

      • Loreen Lee says:

        Thank you. M. Pope. That is very keeping with a thought that I had recently about my own lack of unerstanding. It confirms that perhaps we need not only ‘put our faith’ in Jesus, but ‘understand his ways’.

  8. @FMShyanguya says:

    Thank you again Monsignor Pope!

    Insight again that is always the whole of Scripture which has been deposited with the Church to interpret (cf Lk 24:25-27; 45).

    Another proof of Jesus’ Divinity.

  9. Vikkij says:

    Thank you, Msgr. Pope! I have been wondering what this meant for a while now. I felt like God was answering my question directly when I read your blog :) .

  10. Charles says:

    Thanks Msgr. Pope!

    it is for him to reveal himself to us and summon us to Faith.

    Yes, and when one reflect on the whole context, which definitely includes the miracle of the bread, it is perfectly clear to me that Jesus WOULD HAVE REALLY PASSED BY AND WENT TO THE OTHER SIDE WITHOUT LETTING THEM BE AWARE OF HIM, and eventually they still would have been astonished with! something which He did after the miracle of the bread in John’s gospel!

    Jesus knew that they were not yet convinced about him, and his work, something which remained even after his resurrection for some of them, which even caused Jesus to cry just before Lazarus miracle. The reason that he sent them before him and went to pray, obviously to the Father since he was going to manifest his power over creation, and what was written in

    Genesis 1:26 And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and THE WHOLE EARTH, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth

    SO He wanted to demonstrate both his majesty over creation, and IN CONTRAST, also the reality of his presence AMONG HIS OWN ,which was the poverty of faith even in his disciples, the fact that he controlled the storm, and in the same time expose the complete ignorance from his disciple side, that he had just manifested up to that moment in time the biggest miracle , which in fact it was the manifestation of the biggest of all miracles in itself since through his death only that miracle is still and remain MYSTERIOUSLY functioning till the end of this world, which Jesus confirmed in

    DRB. John 6:26:27 ………….: Amen, amen I say to you, you seek me, not because you have seen miracles, but because you did eat of the LOAVES, and were FILLED. 27 Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that which endureth unto life everlasting, which the SON OF MAN WILL GIVE YOU. FOR HIM HATH GOD THE FATHER SEALED.

    THE MIRACLE OF THE BREAD IN ACTUAL FACT IS THE CONTROL OF THE SEA, IN THE FISH, AND THE CONTROL OF THE EARTH IN THE BREAD, THEREFORE JESUS’ SPIRIT, THE WORD, IS SEALED BY THE FATHER WITHIN THE WHOLE OF CREATION.

    THE FOOD WHICH ENDURES ONTO EVERLASTING!

    THIS THE APOSTLES NEVER REALIZED, AND UNDERSTOOD IN THAT MOMENT IN TIME! OBVIOUS!

  11. Caroline says:

    Thank you so much, Msgr. Pope. There are so many Biblical phrases that simply escape me. This was one of many. I have always found your explanations, as well as your other various writings, to be clear but never watered down. I am not an idiot; I am ignorant. You fill in so many gaps which no one else seems to have the time and/or the knowledge to do. I am blessed in so many ways.

  12. Tim Parker says:

    Monsignor, I have always struggled with this phrase: no more. Thank you, God bless you. -Tim

  13. TeaPot562 says:

    Thank you for the insight into the phrase “..meant to pass them by.”
    TeaPot562

  14. Candida Bohnne-Eittreim says:

    God bless you Msgr. Pope. Your explanation makes perfect sense in light of their refusal/inability to trust in Him. He had to show them something more profound to grab their attention. It has always been very difficult for me to understand how they just could not believe He was who He said He was. With Lazarus, He did effectively declare openly His mastery over life death and all creation. Yet, they still did not understand, i suppose because of sin.

    We, who walk by faith, are profoundly changed by His brief times of passing by. For example, i do not know you personally, but your witness to your childhood forward journey was absolute truth. Why could they not feel Him??

  15. Ed Peters says:

    What an informative post. I didn’t even know I did not really understand it till I started reading this. Thanks!

Leave a Reply