Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Meaning of Jesus' Miracles

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the Divine Liturgy yesterday morning, we heard St. Matthew’s account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes that fed the huge crowd of people that had come to hear Jesus speak – “five thousand men besides women and children”  (MATT. 14:13-21).  Out of His compassion, Jesus had first  healed many in the crowd before He fed them in such a miraculous fashion.  Thus, after feeding the souls of those who came to hear Him with His words, Jesus then nourished their bodies with food.  Jesus was concerned with the whole person, what we often refer to as “soul and body.” The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is referred to as a “nature miracle,” or sometimes as a nontherapeutic miracle.  This distinguishes these particular miracles from the healing or therapeutic miracles.  We have no knowledge of Jesus other than as One through whom such “mighty deeds” were enacted.  The miracles attributed to Christ were not invented by the evangelists to enhance the over-all stature of Jesus.  The miracles of Jesus belong to the bedrock of the Gospel tradition, and the evangelists conveyed that tradition to  us so that we have to this day an accurate and full portrait of what Jesus said and did in His earthly ministry.  At the conclusion of an exhaustive study of the miracles -in a book appropriately entitled Jesus the Miracle Worker – the author, Graham H. Twelftree, offers a succinct definition of the miracle that is meant to capture the full extent of these wondrous events narrated in the four canonical Gospels:

In short, for Jesus and the Gospel writers, a miracle performed by Jesus is an astonishing event, exciting wonder in the observers, which carries the signature of God, who, for those with eyes of faith, can be seen to be expressing his powerful eschatological presence.  (p. 350 – author’s emphasis)

Just a bit earlier in the same study, Twelftree had expressed a similar summation a bit more thoroughly:

Therefore … we are bound to conclude that through the experience of the presence of the Spirit of God in him that enabled him to perform miracles, Jesus was uniquely aware that he was God’s anointed individual or Messiah, who was at the same time at the center of these eschatological events that were expressive of God’s reign or powerful presence. (p. 347 – author’s emphasis)

In the Gospels, of course, we do not encounter the word “miracle.”  What we do find is a widely-expressive variety of terms each of which conveys the sense of wonder and marvel that these extraordinary events manifest to us.  (“Wonder,” “marvel,” and “extraordinary events” are precisely how the word miracle is defined).  In the Gospels, some of the terms used are erga – “works;” dynameis – “powers;” thaumasia – “wonders;” endoxois – “glorious things;” and semeia – “signs.”  The “miracles” of Jesus, thus, reveal the coming of the Kingdom of God in power.

A miracle, as narrated in the Gospels,  is hardly presented as a “violation of nature” as was claimed by the famous Scottish philosopher David Hume (18th c.). The evangelists would certainly never have understood such an expression. Unfortunately, that definition has stuck and has had a negative effect on how the miracles of Christ are understood.  God is not at odds with the natural world, but is its Lord.  Perhaps, the “nature miracles” of Christ are best understood as an extension of nature for purposes that reveal the authority and glory of God; even a transformation of the natural world that reveals God’s presence with and for us.  This does much more justice to how we may relate the works and signs of Christ with the world of nature.

I will soon continue and conclude this brief meditation with a few more specific reflections on the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and its relationship to the Eucharist.


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