Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Letter to My Other Protestant Friend (MOPF) and My Trad Friend (MTF) on the suggestion that Christ's miracles were primarily to prove his Divinity

I don't know very much about this--to me, Christ's miracles remain a deep mystery-- but it seems to me "to prove His Divinity" must be among the least of reasons for Jesus' signs/healings. If it is a reason at all, it is certainly less important than the simple demonstrations of kindness {MTF} suggests, and I would even put it beneath His attending to the needs of the needy, though it is significant that He never did--or suggested a way to do--away entirely with the needy by, say, raising their consciousnesses under the tutelage of a priesthood of community organizers. To whom is He supposed to have proved His Divinity anyway? Not His contemporaries; they didn't believe it. Even among those closest to Him (excepting, of course, His mother), we wait until after His resurrection to hear Thomas pronounce Him "My Lord and my God". Not the people coming after him. First: no one hearing the apostolic teaching or later reading the bible will learn of our Lord's baptism, transfiguration and resurrection and believe that they happened as related and yet not also believe that His miracles happened as such. Second, given that, no one believing all these things will take the miracles as proof of His divinity unless they first take the baptism, transfiguration and resurrection as such. So the miracles are either ineffective or unnecessary as proofs of His Divinity.

I would agree that the miracles offered His contemporaries (and Jews of several succeeding generations perhaps) demonstrations of the messianic nature of His ministry at a time when the Messiah and the Godhead were never remotely dreamt to be found in one and the same person. The manifestation of messianic credentials by signs would not only have been in the sense that {MTF} suggests they prove His Divinity (he can do miracles, therefore he must be the Messiah and/or God), but also and more importantly would come to have been seen as fulfillment of prophecy surrounding the Messiah (cf Matthew 8:17 referring, if perhaps obliquely, to Isaias 53:4). But even this would only be noted by men already disposed to welcome the Messiah. So very much like us, the Pharisees and Sadducees comfortable in their offices might theoretically hope for the Messiah to bring salvation, but perhaps not just yet.

Contemplation of the miracles is complicated by some queer circumstances surrounding them. Several things strike me immediately: in no particular order, the fact that He was often reluctant to display His talent for miracles--the conversation at John 2:3-5, a case in point, so short yet with such power to lend understanding and vexation seemingly in equal parts; the fact that so much of the time He admonished people not to spread news of the miracles but to keep them secret accompanied by the fact that He was so often disobeyed in these instructions (Luke 5:14, Mark 7:3). These first two points in the paradoxical way of all deep truths seem at once to illustrate and refute the possible purpose of the miracles being base public relations. It seems beneath our Lord and Savior to trouble himself with PR, yet there is no doubt that it is intrinsic to His mission that He hear first cries of, "Hosanna," and then shouts of, "Crucify Him." The kind of notoriety that makes both Palm Sunday and Good Friday possible surely stems at least in part from unauthorized reports of His private miracles being ratified by His more public displays of power.

Then there is the fact that so often the healings involved children as part of His particular concern with children (e.g. Matthew 15:28, John 4:50). Though rife with meaning, among the important realizations we take from it is the knowledge that Christ is building not simply a spiritual framework upon which individuals can base their one-on-one relationship with God, but a physical and communal Church in which such a relationship as a parent's to his child matters in itself as well as signifying something greater. Fourthly we have the widespread belief at the time (being disinterred by some strange Protestant sects today) that misfortunes and physical infirmities were indications of Divine disfavor (John 9:1,2). This one Christ turns on its head making the sensible sign of physical healing the assurance of spiritual health. A fifth point, the fact that the apostles also performed miracles must be borne in mind (Acts 3:6, 5:12) when considering their import. It would seem definitively to refute the notion that Jesus' miracles necessarily prove His Divinity.

What then are the principle purposes of the miracles of Christ? There may be many, but what strikes me chiefly in considering the word sign so often used in Scripture for miracle is that it is the identical word Catholics use when describing the notion of Sacrament: to wit an efficacious sign of the grace of Christ. I propose that the principle function of our Lord's miracles is to be as types of the Sacraments themselves. I should rather say this is the function of our accounts of the miracles, for, after all, what does it matter that a particular man was cured of leprosy or blindness when so many others are not? The Sacraments in turn, viewed expansively, are mysteries (the Greeks actually say Mysterion for Sacrament) and gifts that adumbrate the principal mystery and gift of our faith--that of the Incarnation. In a circle then, the Second Person of the Trinity takes on flesh (i.e. matter) in time and space and uses space, time and matter in turn to illustrate both the salvific power of the Incarnation and how that power is to be carried forward to the end of time in the Sacraments, particularly that mystery most like the Incarnation itself, the Eucharist.

The Eucharistic symbolism in the miracles {MAF} mentions is obvious. Even so, we do well to meditate on how the signs of bread and wine reach not only forward to the present day Mass but back through Mosaic manna to Abraham's encounter with Melchizedek at the very birth of our Faith, highlighting the essential Sacramental/Incarnational nature of a Church instituted by Christ from outside time for all time. Christ's promise in Matthew 28:20 thus is very real and He keeps it in a very complete (that is to say both physical and spiritual) way.

We could consider each miracle in the Gospel for its sacramental hints and messages, but perhaps just a few will suffice. Recall the blind men Christ heals with spittle and in particular the one at John 9. Why does He use spittle? To prove His Divinity, better to heal with just a word or just a thought--no, the reference to Baptism is inescapable. Then, the words which follow, "Go now and wash in the pool called 'Sent'," of which the closing words "Ite missa est" are so reminiscent, require of us not only the passive acceptance of Sacramental graces, but our continuing cooperation in them. Finally, I find particularly glorious the notion of His mixing spittle with dirt to confect a plaster of mud. Once again Christ reaches back, even farther this time to the very creation of Adam from the same mud, to demonstrate that His is a physical-spiritual relationship with us from creation for all time.

Consider also the healing of the paralytic at Luke 5:18-26 this time as a type of the Sacrament of Penance. At the heart of the passage is Jesus' forgiveness of the man's sins, the physical healing--prefiguring the natural psychological healing which so often accompanies the Sacrament today--merely the sensible sign of that more profound cleansing, and Jesus delivers a short but profound catechesis to this effect at v.23. It is significant that it is not on account of the man's own faith that he is healed, but on account of the faith of those who brought him. The Catholic implications of this are many. It speaks once again to the communal nature of the Church and in particular the validity of petitioning the intercession of Saints, but the point I want to draw from it is just how little Christ expects from us before allowing us to turn back to Him. The fact that the man himself had not enough faith to effect his own healing signals the fact that we do not have enough contrition to effect the forgiveness of our own sins. Yet imperfect (and sometimes very imperfect) contrition suffices, and forgiveness is always forthcoming. The Source of Grace is always one however many conduits it may have.

Again, we could run on about the implications for the Sacramental priesthood (Holy Orders) in the draft of fishes, or the symbols of infant Baptism in the cases of miraculous healing of children, but this is perhaps enough to go on with.

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I'd be a blackguard and a cad, if I weren't so ineffectual. The less said "About Me", the better.