THE MIRACLES OF JESUS
Miraculous Phenomena in the Life of Christ and His Church
WHAT IS A MIRACLE?
We use the word “miracle” freely, even casually, in modern English: “What a miracle! Greg cleaned up his room!” “Will miracles never cease.” “A miracle batsman.” “A miracle cleanser.” “It was a miracle how she suddenly recovered.” Here we see different levels of meaning: a great surprise, something unexpected, remarkable human skill, a highly-efficient product, an amazing healing.
Taken from the Latin mirare, meaning “to wonder at something”, “miracle” means something extraordinary which leaves us wondering because we do not understand how it happened. A true miracle is contrary to our expectations in an ordered predictable world, where fixed scientific laws are always supposed to work. “What goes up must come down.”
In his Essay on Miracles, the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman described miracles as events that do not fit into the known laws of a given system. In his technical book entitled Miracles, C.S. Lewis, suggested that a miracle does not break the laws of nature. It is not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know about nature. We encounter a mysterious event beyond our limited comprehension.
That does not mean that had we known more, we could understand how miracles work. For example, had Columbus produced radar on his ship he would have been burnt as a witch. But such speculation is impossible. Miracles are not chance anticipations of advanced electronics. Pseudo-scientific explanations usually assume a materialist or “naturalist” understanding of reality. They avoid the core of the genuine miracle – a supernatural factor, a divine cause.
Unusual healings can be explained in terms of psychology, faith as motivation, psychosomatic illness etc. But a healing miracle requires something “extra”, a touch of the divine, or as we put it, divine “intervention”. This is what we see in many acts of Jesus commonly referred to as miracles.
ARE THE GOSPEL MIRACLES HISTORICAL?
Did the miracles of Jesus really happen? Are they only “miracle stories” made up and added later by the “Christian community”?
The First Vatican Council (1870) affirmed that Moses, prophets (such as Elijah) and, pr-eminently, Christ our Lord really performed miracles and made prophecies. This binding teaching was directed against rationalism and the first waves of liberal biblical criticism. Therefore the Church insists that the miracles recorded in the Gospels really happened, reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 547-500 citing Acts 2:20, “miracles, prodigies and signs”.
The first problem faced by anyone who wants to reject the historical truth of Christ’s miracles is that there are so many of them. We find them in all four Gospels, in the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke and then in St John’s Gospel. If we were to remove all accounts of miracle from the Gospels, much of the narrative would vanish. Jesus would be left as a moral or spiritual teacher, revealed to a degree in his words but not in his deeds.
Apart from the obvious question of the number of miracles in all gospels and indications that many were never recorded in detail (cf. Matthew 15:30) there is the internal evidence of the accounts themselves.
So many of Christ’s miracles are passed on in a rather ordinary way. Their literary forms are not particularly “mythical”. They even include trivia, which is a key to authentic historical data. For example, Mark 5:41-42 includes Aramaic words Jesus used in raising Jairus’ daughter and her exact age.
The miracles come from eye witness accounts, retained in the excellent memories of people in ancient times, living in agrarian societies, not distracted by information overload. In this regard we find the healing of the woman with the issue of blood sandwiched between the healing of Jairus’ daughter. This may be editing, but why? It seems to be exactly how it happened, one healing performed on the way to another.
Therefore accounts of Christ’s miracles should not be described as “stories”. “Story” may describe the literary form of miracle accounts, but it might suggest that these were myths invented to convey a moral message or make Jesus impressive. To claim that Christ’s miracles were made up generations later leaves questions unresolved. Why were these incidents so well-remembered in the decades immediately after Pentecost? Why were they carefully passed on in oral and written traditions that preceded the writing of gospels?
Writing outside early Christian circles, the Jewish writer Josephus described Jesus as one “who wrought surprising feats”. Miracles were something people remembered about Jesus. Obviously many witnessed his healings. If he entered a village and healed the sick, the blind and the lame, a local memory would be of Jesus the wonder worker, which is what Josephus absorbed.
WHY DID JESUS PERFORM MIRACLES?
“Miracle”, however, is an incomplete description of Christ’s healings and inexplicable acts. When we read accounts of these events we find that they are not usually called “miracles”. They are called “signs”. This is an interesting reversal of meaning. “Miracle” is our way of looking at a wondrous event. “Sign” is God’s way of looking at the same event. What we see as “something to wonder at”, God offers as a sign, a revelation. The signs raise another question: what do the miracles of Jesus mean?
Christ is revealed both in his words and deeds, as the Second Vatican Council affirmed (cf Dei Verbum, 17). The miracles make up a large part of his deeds, leading to the great saving acts, his death and Resurrection..
Just as Christ’s parables reveal the Kingdom of God, so his miracles proclaim the coming of the Kingdom. In the complete reign of God there will be no more suffering, no disease. No one will be blind, deaf or lame. Justice will reign and there will be abundant food for all. Everyone will be welcome; no lepers or outcasts there. Moreover, death will be no more, for the dead will have been raised. Christ’s miracles encompass all these possibilities. When we bring them together, we are looking into a divine future, into the Kingdom. Already it breaks into time and space through “signs and wonders”.
MIRACLES REVEAL JESUS
Miracles are signs of who Jesus really is, the divine and human natures in one Person, Jesus Christ. They support the insistence of the Church that the Jesus of history is the same Person as the Christ of faith.
The classical apologetical argument that the miracles offer evidence for the divinity of Christ is sound. It rests on the teaching of the First Vatican Council about miracles. It is an antidote to false christology which would make Jesus “divine” only after his Resurrection. But the miracles also reveal the compassionate humanity of Jesus, who weeps before he raises Lazarus, who graciously evokes faith from those in need.
HOW MIRACLES REVEAL GOD
Each miracle has its own meaning and value. But they reveal the true God. Christ’s healing miracles tell us that God is active in our world, involved in our troubles and limitations. God is compassionate and loving, close to people in their suffering.
Christ’s nature miracles (multiplying food, walking on water etc.) show us God in control of nature. The world we picture as a system of fixed laws is open to a providential God.
Miracles are also a revelation of who we are. Christ does not hesitate to ascribe the power of some miracles to the faith of those involved. Miracles underline the need for faith, the power of faith. They reveal our need for a personal relationship of faith in God.
A QUESTION OF FAITH
Does faith cause the miracle to happen? It is a factor, but it is not always required . In most cases of a healing, human faith and divine mercy intersect. But miracles remain acts of grace, freely bestowed. God is not bound to respond to deeply-felt faith. God remains free, sovereign. Here we face a paradox. Persons of great faith are not always healed. Persons of minimal faith, even of no faith, may be healed. There is a mysterious divine impartiality here, some hidden process of election that we cannot fathom.
The nature miracles raise the question of whether Jesus was forcing people to have faith because they saw a “sign”. But none of the nature miracles were conjuring acts designed to impress or convince. Each carried a meaning, and usually took place in a discreet way so that only the inner circle around Christ were fully aware of what had happened. Moreover, Jesus was impatient with people hungering for “signs”.
Christ’s nature miracles also point to the Kingdom: the nuptial wine of the Kingdom at Cana, the supernatural Bread of Life in the feedings. When the Kingdom breaks into our world, we see the perfection of the natural creation.
THE GREATEST MIRACLE
The Resurrection has been described as the greatest miracle. Again there is nothing wrong with using the Resurrection as miraculous proof of God and of the identity of Jesus Christ, as classical apologists do. But we should go further, because Christ rose from the dead not only to give us sure proof of his identity but for other reasons.
Easter carries other meanings. Jesus rose again in our flesh to confirm our hope in eternal life, to show us what lies beyond death, that we too will be raised up. He rose again to offer us divine life in the sacraments where he is present and active among us in his risen body, above all in the holy Eucharist, the hidden miracle.
THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES
Miraculous Phenomena in the Life of Christ and His Church
by Rev. Msgr. Peter J. Elliott
EXPLAINING THEM AWAY
Some sceptics dismiss Christ’s miracles by attempting to explain them. “Something happened, but…”. For example, the healing miracles are “explained away” as powerful suggestion. Jesus was a hypnotist, perhaps a great psychologist or analyst, who helped people to get better.
Christ’s exorcisms in particular are explained as therapy for mental illness or nervous disorders. The boy who threw himself into the fire looked like a case epilepsy, but that does not cover the man whose demons Jesus sent into pigs (Mark 5: 1-20). Their mysterious name “Legion, for we are many” accords with subsequent experiences of exorcism or “deliverance” that have continued in the Church. Exorcism is prayer made in the name of the crucified and risen One who has conquered evil, but who first revealed this through his own exorcisms.
The raising of the dead is difficult to explain away. These great signs were restorations to earthly life, not resurrection. Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s son and Lazarus were restored to life, but later they died. These signs of Jesus pointed towards his own Resurrection, proclaiming the coming Kingdom where there will be no death.
The nature miracles are even more difficult to explain away. These signs are to be accepted or denied outright. They reveal Christ’s divine power to modify or direct matter. He turns water into wine. His body does not sink into water. He directs fish into a net. A fig tree withers at his command. He can multiply bread and fish.
A religious novelist “explained away” the miraculous feeding of thousands in the following way. When the boy came forward and offered his loaves and fish, everyone was so moved that they pulled out the lunches they had hidden under their robes and shared them with others. But this approach disregards the gospel narratives, which also indicate several miraculous feedings. Only John mentions the boy. The “explanation” seems less plausible than the miracle.
However, the gospel writers never present the feeding of thousands as magic. It was a significant kingdom miracle, a sign of the coming reign of God, with nuances we still do not quite grasp, such as the baskets of scraps left over. The males present are arranged in military ranks (Mark 6:40), perhaps an attempt to make Jesus into a political Messiah with free food for his troops. But John underlined the spiritual and sacramental meaning, presenting Christ’s eucharistic teaching (John 6: 22-58) soon after he fed thousands.
Christ walking on water encourages faith in time of trial. But that does not mean it was made up to comfort a late First Century community. It may have been written in a specific way, but it rests on what apostles experienced. Some suggest that it was a post-Resurrection appearance pushed back by the gospel writer to the time of Christ’s ministry. But that presses a sharp distinction which no gospel writers make, between a purely human Jesus before the Resurrection and a divine Jesus after the Resurrection.
MIRACLES AFTER THE TIME OF CHRIST
Miracles did not cease after Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension. They continued in his Church, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. This is already evident in gospel traditions. The twelve are sent out to heal and exorcise (Mark 6: 7-13), promised miraculous power at the Ascension, power given by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Wonders are then performed by Peter and the apostles, such as the dramatic healing of the beggar (Acts 3: 1-11) and other miracles (Acts 9: 32-43; 14: 7-10; 20: 7-12)
However, the early Church never regarded miracles as the essence of Christianity. Indeed there is a hint of irritation with them when St Paul affirms: “While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1: 22-23). Christianity is not a cult for wonder seekers, hence our aversion to “new age” enthusiasts.
Early Christian literature also recorded miracles, such as the golden fire and fragrance witnessed when St Polycarp of Smyrna was burnt. St Augustine accepted miracles related to martyrs and their relics. His modern biographer Peter Brown describes him as “credulous but not superstitious”. But in a pre-scientific world people were not as surprised by miracles as we might be today.
On his way to the Catholic Church, John Henry Newman became interested in miracles in the lives of saints. Liberal theologians ridiculed him. This rejection of post-New Testament miracles may also have been associated with Calvinism. Calvinists regard mystical, charismatic or paranormal phenomena with great suspicion, a mood which lingers among non-charismatic Evangelicals to this day.
MIRACLES IN THE HISTORY OF THE CHURCH
Miracles in the Church have often been linked to the charisms of a particular saint (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2003). Recently, before Padre Pio was beatified by Pope John Paul II, there was no problem in finding authentic miracles gained by his intercession. The problem seems to have been selecting the best-documented cases from among many wonders attributed to this remarkable Capuchin priest.
Nor have nature miracles been lacking in the experience of the Church. There are instances of food being multiplied for hungry orphans by the prayers of a saint, not forgetting a wide range of paranormal and mystical phenomena. Some cases are documented and discussed in a rational way by Herbert Thurston SJ in The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism.
Nature miracles have also been associated with the Eucharist, such as the blood- stained corporal of Bolsena (1263). This led to the construction of the cathedral at Orvieto, where this sacred object is housed. We cannot explain such amazing phenomena. We should never dote on them, but they are there.
Healing miracles have long been associated with places of pilgrimage. In early Christian times, pilgrims visited the tombs of martyrs. Throughout the Middle Ages, they sought healing through St James at Compostella or St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Marian shrines based on apparitions or miraculous images also go back to the distant Christian past. With the apparitions of Our Lady at the Rue du Bac in Paris, in 1830, a new Marian age began, continuing in our own times, with centres of healing at Lourdes, Fatima and other places.
Many healings at a religious shrine may be psychosomatic incidents or “faith healings”. There are also problems of gaining accurate diagnosis and case histories. However, when an outstanding healing occurs at Lourdes, a thorough investigation is carried out by impartial experts. Out of many recorded healings since 1858 a small number have been officially recognised and listed as authentic miracles gained by Our Lady’s intercession.
A HEALTHY ATTITUDE
Because miracles remain part of the experience of Catholics across three millennia, we should never deny them, nor should we be embarrassed by them. Certainly some people make too much of phenomena such as visions and healings, but that does not mean that this dimension of the Christian experience should be locked away.
A healthy attitude based on faith could be expressed as: “Well, this is God’s universe, so what else should we expect?” Miracles form an interesting part of the Catholic experience, but they are not central to the life of most believers. Some people are led to the Faith by such phenomena. Many more find the Faith under more normal circumstances.
MIRACLES AND THE UNIVERSE
The question of miracles should lead to deeper reflection on the world around us. Once we concede that miracles can happen, our understanding and perception of this universe is transformed.
When we accept the possibility of miracle, we acknowledge that we live in a universe where God really is in control. We cannot explain everything. We encounter mystery at the heart of creation, the presence behind visible realities. We sense Divine Providence. What we describe as the “laws of nature” depend on God.
We look out at this world with new eyes, like the first Christians, witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. These men and women found their whole vision of reality broken and transformed because they had dinner with “this Jesus” who had been crucified.
Earlier I raised the question of whether miracles are interventions contrary to the laws of nature. But “intervention” suggests breaking fixed laws. Today we would be more cautious about describing scientific laws as fixed. When a law “bends” and the miraculous occurs, we should see that miracles are not so much contrary to nature, rather they go beyond nature.
A Christian “world view” understands this universe as an open system, not the closed system of Nineteenth Century science. The universe is not like a wrist-watch. Nor are we locked in that watch, lonely prisoners abandoned by some “blind watchmaker”.
This open “world view” is in harmony with modern understandings of physics, beyond Newton and after Einstein. Christians are thus perfectly at home with a scientific perception of time, space and matter that is flexible – provided it is all guided by the active presence of a personal provident God.
In this perspective, miracles are seen less as divine “interventions” that break laws or upset the fixed order of nature. They are rare moments when the created world leaps forward into that perfection we anticipate beyond time and space. Miracles are doors to the light, briefly opened by God. They are glimpses of the future where there is no pain, suffering or disease, where laws of physics and chemistry no longer apply, for there God will be all in all.