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Do You Believe in Miracles?
FR. PETER M.J. STRAVINSKAS
The dictionary offers us the following description of a miracle: "A wonderful happening that is contrary to or independent of the known laws of nature." Now, what does Christian faith add to the picture? From the start, we must admit that the picture is far from clear.
I don't know what God is trying to say to me but, within the past year, I have been immersed in three situations involving the miraculous: the Fox special, "Signs from God," which some of you may have seen last summer; serving as spiritual director for a woman who has been publicly identified as a seer; and giving an address on the credibility of miracles, past and present. Honesty compels me to admit from the outset that my own predisposition to it all is quite negative, taking as my starting point Our Lord's reminder that "an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign" (Mt. 12:39). Or, as Archbishop Jean Honorι of Tours states quite bluntly: "Contrary to what certain Christians may think, [the Church's] attitude is not one of favorable disposition, but rather of skepticism and of the most extreme reserve."
That having been said, I am reasonably certain that Almighty God must have something else in mind, seeing that His providence has put me in situations where something more than one scriptural verse seemed called for. My recent experiences have forced me to read, study, and pray about a topic that I otherwise may have left unexamined or unchallenged. I appreciate the opportunity to reconsider the question of miracles and present the fruits of my study in this three-part series.
My approach will be rather simple, but I hope not simplistic. In this first installment, I shall begin with a dictionary definition of "miracle," and examine miracles in Sacred Scripture. In subsequent installments, I will review miracles in Church history and look at how such phenomena are viewed in the Church today.
The dictionary offers us the following description of a miracle: "A wonderful happening that is contrary to or independent of the known laws of nature." Now, what does Christian faith add to the picture? From the start, we must admit that the picture is far from clear. On the one hand, we sense Our Lord's annoyance with wonder-seekers, as we hear Him say, "Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe" (Jn. 4:48). On the other hand, He promises His disciples that they will work signs even greater than His (cf. John 14:12). Indeed, the performance of miracles by the early believers in Christ was seen as a confirmation of their message (cf. Acts 2:43).
I would suggest that our approach to this entire topic must be very cautious. Often we hear people say that faith means believing without seeing, and they would ground that understanding in the comments of the risen Lord to St. Thomas (cf. Jn. 20:29). And there is validity in that interpretation. At the same time, we might look at faith in this light: Faith is not "not seeing," but seeing differently or through different lenses. One of the effects of original sin is that our intellects have been clouded and our vision blurred. The theological virtue of faith first given to us in Baptism gives us a capacity to see things from God's perspective; it sharpens our natural perspective. A supposedly "modern" view of reality systematically excludes the miraculous, but on what grounds? Simply on the basis that because man can't do something, it should be fairly obvious that God can't either. In this way, these "moderns" prove the truth of the insight of Voltaire surely no client of the supernatural who asserted, "God made man in His own image and likeness, and man has never ceased to return the compliment!"
Some years ago, traveling in a taxi in Jerusalem operated by a non-practicing Jew, I noticed with interest how the driver consistently referred to Our Lady as "the Virgin." Finally, I asked him, point-blank: "Do you believe that Mary was a virgin?" "Why not, Father?" came the quick retort. I pressed on: "How many mothers do you know that remain virgins?" "Look," he replied, "if Almighty God could make the whole universe, don't you think He could make a nice little Jewish girl a mother and keep her a virgin at the same time?" This non-practicing Jew had retained an appreciation of the miraculous which is rooted in the Bible. In truth, he understood that the same God was and is working throughout, a point echoed by Fr. Avery Dulles, S. J., when he declares: "If nature is God's prose, miracles may perhaps be called His poetry." Fr. Dulles also asserts that taking the miraculous from Christianity is to mutilate the Gospel. So, what does the Bible tell us about God's "poetry"?
Miracles in the Old Testament
St. Thomas Aquinas gives two reasons why God enables man to work miracles: "First and principally, in confirmation of the doctrine that a man teaches. For since those things which are of faith surpass human reason, they cannot be proved by human arguments, but need to be proved by the argument of divine power: so that when a man does works that God alone can do, we may believe that what he says is from God: just as when a man is the bearer of letters sealed with the king's ring, it is to be believed that what they contain expresses the king's will."
He goes on to offer a second purpose: "[T]o make known God's presence in a man by the grace of the Holy Spirit: so that when a man does the works of God we may believe that God dwells in him by His grace" (Summa Theologiae IIIa, q. 43, art. 1). St. Thomas concedes that "miracles lessen the merit of faith," but nonetheless he declares, "it is better for them to be converted to the faith even by miracles than that they should remain altogether in their unbelief" (ibid.).
It may surprise people at first blush to learn that the Old Testament is actually rather sparing in its recounting of miracles. Aside from the Exodus experience, the only other major source of miracles is found in the material related to Elijah and Elisha (cf. 1 Kings 17-2 Kings 8). According to the biblical view, miracles are essentially signs which support the word which is proclaimed. A miracle, then, is not "the holy" in itself, but a sign which points to "the holy," indeed, to the Holy One Himself, who through signs reveals His nature, glory, and power.
The human reaction to the miraculous should be one of wonder, to be sure, but also one of praise. In this regard, Moses' first encounter with the Living God (cf. Ex. 3-4) should serve as a paradigm. The sight of the bush which burns but is not consumed terrifies Moses but also intrigues him and draws him more deeply into the mystery. The initial fear of Moses is transformed by the experience into calm assurance as Moses engages the Lord in conversation. That primary event of the burning bush served as an ongoing reminder that the God of the Hebrews could do what He promised and was determined to do it. At the same time, Moses is told that he too will be able to work miracles. But for what purpose? Not as cheap magician's tricks to entertain or charm, but precisely as signs to effect God's will the release of His people from bondage.
Cardinal Newman makes the interesting observation that the performance of miracles in the Old Testament seems to be a prerogative of the prophets, to the exclusion of the priests and kings. Why? Because the offices of priesthood and kingship were, in his words, "already ascertained." That is, the institutionalized nature of those roles spoke for themselves. The charismatic nature of prophecy, on the other hand, demanded validation. We shall return to that idea when we consider contemporary miracles.
Miracles in the New Testament
The sparsity of miracles in the Old Covenant is more than compensated for in the New, but with good reason. The prophet Isaiah announces that the age of the Messiah will be ushered in by Him who is called both "Wonderful" and "Mighty God" (Is. 9:6). Beyond that, Isaiah 35 teaches that marvelous healings will be a sign that the final age has dawned. True to that prophetic word, then, miracles dot the landscape of the pages of the New Testament.
Interestingly, a key miraculous sign noted in the works of the major prophets is one connected with the coming of the Messiah: "Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Is. 7:14). The Jews of old believed that the time of miracles would flower most abundantly when there arose the prophet "like unto Moses," the very words used in John's Gospel to describe Jesus (cf. Jn. 1:45).
While the New Testament uses many different words to describe the miraculous, St. John's word of choice is "semeion" or "sign." John wants to ensure that every element of chicanery and superstition is eliminated from the realm of possibility. Furthermore, he is extremely selective in his delineation of signs, choosing only seven, even while noting that "Jesus did many other signs not written in this book" (Jn. 20:30). Those signs are arranged in a deliberate order as well, moving in crescendo-like fashion from what could be mistaken for a magician's stunt (changing water into wine) to that of raising a man from the dead the prelude to the greatest sign, the Lord's own Resurrection. St. John's methodology leads us to look at the sign as a means of transferring our gaze to the Signmaker to discover some important truth about Him, most especially to have an experience of His glory. These signs convince the beholder that the words Jesus has spoken are true. The sign, then, validates both message and Messenger.
A pattern for the process can be discovered in the granting of sight to the man born blind. Through his interaction with Jesus and the "work" or "sign" done on his behalf, the man moves from blindness to sight (a physical change) to insight (a profoundly spiritual change). It is also worth highlighting the fact that it is Our Lady in John's Gospel who launches her Son on His ministry of sign-working. Ironically, she who believes without any sign moves Him to work a sign. Put otherwise, her strong faith, which required no sign, knew that He was in fact capable of working signs, which could lead others of lesser faith to a deeper understanding of Jesus and commitment to Him.
In the other Gospels, miracles are intended to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom and its definite arrival in the Person of Christ. The gap between God and man has been narrowed, the divide between the natural and the supernatural has been bridged, the distance between the sacred and the profane has been lessened. Once more, even if in a different style, the same idea prevails. The wonders are worked to direct our attention to the Wonderworker, who demonstrates that the words He speaks are true and that He Himself is the true Word, now come in the flesh. Thus, the miraculous is to be seen at the service of the truth.
The Gospel miracles may be conveniently grouped in this fashion: healings, exorcisms, and the so-called "nature miracles." In the healings, the normal procedure involves a direct encounter between the Healer and the one to be healed, generally through a request for a cure and at least an implicit act of faith on the part of the would-be recipient or the recipient's family or friends. The exorcisms demonstrate in very concrete manner that the kingdom of God has come crashing into the world, breaking the power of Satan. The nature miracles (e.g., Jesus' walking on water or calming of the storm), for the most part, are not done for the benefit of the crowds, but for smaller groups of disciples.
Miracle stories, obviously, are not unique to the New Testament or the Bible in general. What is interesting and important to observe, however, is that miracles noted in pagan, Jewish, or extrabiblical Christian sources are rather different in that they rely heavily on the fantastic, the imaginative, and the bizarre, whereas the New Testament miracles whether of Christ or of the disciples can be characterized as very straightforward, simple, and lacking in embellishment. The element of the magical or vulgar display is absent.
Miraculous signs did not cease with the Lord's Ascension. On the contrary, they continued throughout the New Testament as witnesses to the reality and validity of the Holy Spirit's indwelling within the Church and, specifically, within the ministry of the apostles. St. Mark declares that the apostolic miracles would actually bolster and give credibility to the apostolic message (cf. Mk. 16:20). Thus, we find numerous examples of miracles documented in the Acts of the Apostles, especially at the hands of Sts. Peter and Paul.
It's important to note that physical cures are not ends in themselves, but suggest a more profound significance an inner or spiritual healing. That is, the cure of a bodily ailment suggests the cure of a spiritual ailment, which is far more basic and important. In fact, Christ preferred the spiritual remedy to the physical, but His audiences often appeared otherwise inclined. Hence, we find Him forgiving a man's sins (cf. Mk. 2:3-12), which stimulates charges of blasphemy among some of His hearers. He then works a physical remedy, precisely as an external sign of what has already been achieved interiorly.
While miracles are intended to rouse men to faith, we must acknowledge that Jesus' miracles have mixed results. Some bystanders conclude that Jesus' works of power are indisputable signs of either His messiahship or divinity (cf. Lk. 11:14), but others conclude that He is possessed by Beelzebul (cf. Lk. 11:15). The awakening of faith, the desired goal of every miracle, does not always achieve its purpose in Scripture. Furthermore, the desire for a miracle is often perceived by Our Lord and New Testament writers as resistance to the Gospel and the virtue of faith (e.g., Mt. 12:38-39; 16:1-4; 1 Cor. 1:22-24). At the same time, Jesus held much more accountable those who had seen signs yet persisted in their unbelief evidence of their hardness of heart.
With this scriptural picture in place a mosaic, if you will, showing both Jesus and His disciples as workers of signs and wonders, we are naturally led to ask if this type of activity continued beyond their days.
Stravinskas, Fr. Peter M.J. "Do You Believe in Miracles?" Lay Witness (June, 2000).
Reprinted by permission of Lay Witness.
Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas is the editor of The Catholic Answer and a member of CUF's advisory council.
Copyright © 2000 Lay Witness