Why "Water-Walking" and "Underwater Breath-Holding" are not Olympic Events

Posted August 10th, 2008

By Fr. Tom Seitz
Fr. Tom Seitz

A commentator for NBC Sports claimed last night that if Michael Phelps, the phenomenal swimmer on the American team, is able to win eight gold medals at the Olympics, it will be the greatest athletic achievement in history. As impressive as that may very well be, we have just been reminded this morning of two other water events that are so spectacular that they are not even included in Olympic competition because they are so difficult, that even if someone were to attempt them, they would never be able to duplicate what has already been accomplished. I’m referring, of course, to Jonah, who holds the world’s record for holding his breath for three whole days, not only under water, but in the belly of a whale; and Jesus, who is the undisputed water-walking champion of the universe.

The apostle Peter, as far as I know, is the only other person to do what Jesus has done, although I did learn this week that Leonardo De Vinci invented a water-walking device which American inventor Yoav Rosen has modified and patented in 2004 (US patent # 6,764,363). His device employs a small pontoon attached to each foot, with miniature, rotating rudders, which allow the water walker not only to stand on the surface of water, but to actually make forward progress.

I don’t think Jesus used his own carpenter skills before Leonardo or Yoav to fabricate a similar kind of device which he then put on and used to walk out onto the Sea of Galilee to join his disciples in their boat, which was stalled in the face of a stiff and persistent headwind.

But I do think both Jesus and Jonah were assisted, if not with a scuba tank or a set of pontoons, then in some supernatural, divine sort-of-way, allowing them to do what only can be done with God’s support and assistance.

I think this is precisely what distinguishes Olympic competition from what I would call “Zionic” endeavors and achievements. By “Zionics”, I mean a way of life that originates, and finds its source of inspiration and power, not on Mt. Olympus, but on Mt. Zion, on Mt. Calvary.

When I was in high school, I ran the mile for the track team. I learned that I could perform much better if I allowed another runner to break the wind in front of me. Then, if I had enough energy left near the end of the race, I could attempt to pass those who had set the pace and broken the wind and finish ahead of my fellow competitors. No one would have accused me of cheating, of taking advantage of my fellow competitors. I was just running a smart race. And if I didn’t have anything left over at the end, and came in third or fourth, I still ran a faster race than I could have if I hadn’t had someone in front of me doing the harder work. That person, of course, in the race of life, is Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith.

The only way Peter could dare to step out of the boat was because Jesus was already out there ahead of him. As long as Peter stayed close to Jesus and didn’t shift his attention to the wind or the waves, he was okay.

The same was true for Jonah. When God called Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach repentance to the most ruthless and violent people on earth, he thought God was sending him to his death: the Ninevites would never listen to him, let alone repent of their ruthlessness, and he would not just be contending with a strong political and military headwind, but with the likelihood of losing his head altogether.

So Jonah boarded a ship that is headed in the opposite direction, thinking he can escape and avoid both God and the Ninevites. What he discovered, when he prayed to God in the belly of the whale, with what he thought was his dying breath, was the fact that the very Spirit of God was present in his prayer, even in the depths of the sea, to sustain him. He discovered that you can’t get away from God even when you try, and most certainly when you cry out to God, who promises that his kingdom belongs to those who are poor in spirit, whose spirits are exhausted.

The reason I call our walk with Christ “Zionics” is because God wants to assist us. He intends to assist us. We cannot really live without his help. He created us to live in cooperation with him and with each other.

I am persuaded that Jesus walked on the water, not because he had some sort of human flotation device, but because of the cross he was bearing for us. It wasn’t so much that God allowed him to float above the depths as it was the God gave him a pole, a cross, so long that it reached not only to the depths of the Sea of Galilee, but to the very depths of reality itself, a reality so substantial that we recognize in Jesus a man who is never in over his head, who is never out of his depth, and who has been sent into the world to help you and me who are often in over our heads or out of our depth.

The sacrificial love of Christ on the Cross IS the very law and force which guides and upholds every other law and force of nature, and of all creation.

Thinking back again to my days on the track team, the event that comes closest to seeming almost supernatural to me is the pole vault. The pole vault helps me appreciate what the Gospel and the new life of God’s grace is all about. A pole vaulter carries his own cross, if you will. He or she must plant that pole securely and confidently in a small box at the end of the runway, and then allow that pole to turn him and his whole life upside down and propel him up and over the bar. I confess I never had the courage to really get the hang of it. Like Peter, I focused too much on my fears. I was afraid the pole might snap, or that I would get tangled up in the bar and land back on the hard runway rather than in the soft pit. I convinced myself that it was just impossible for me to succeed in going forward, then upside down, then up and over, even though I saw others do it. Faith is believing in the power of the pole, of being willing to throw the entire weight of your being into that pole, holding on to it for dear life, and trusting that is the only way over, and that getting over is more important to you than anything else in the world.

The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius”: swifter, higher, stronger. Those of us who have seen the Cross of Christ on Mt. Zion and have come to believe in the power of that Cross understand that it is more important to move with the Spirit, at whatever speed, than it is to be swifter on our own. We understand that Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into the highest heavens, to the right hand of God, only after he had first humbled himself, bearing us up even as sin and death weighed him down. We understand that God works through our weaknesses with a strength that is stronger even than sin or death when we follow the example of Christ’s love on the Cross.

Paul tells us in one of his letters that our reward is not a medal or a crown of fading olive branches, but the promise of a resurrection body, where walking on water is no longer supernatural, but natural, and where nothing, not even a whale or the depths of the Galilean or Mediterranean Seas or even death itself, can separate us from the life-giving Spirit and loving presence of God. Until then, when we find ourselves in over our heads or out of our depth, let us grab hold of the help God has given us, and experience the joy of vaulting over occasions and circumstances that might otherwise swallow us up in sin and death. And may those around us see and recognize that in those moments, they have witnessed a “Zionic” event even more glorious than eight gold Olympic medals, and may be inspired to pick up their own cross and experience similar victories of their own. AMEN.