A speeding car hops the guard rail and tumbles down the grassy embankment. No one thankfully is hurt. “It was a miracle,” friends of the hapless driver and passengers celebrate. CT scans and MRIs reveal that a tumor has completely disappeared and chemo therapy will no longer be required. “It’s a miracle,” the jubilant family rejoices. One jet engine was visibly and profusely burning up yet the pilot managed to land the plane safely and soundly on the tarmac. “It’s a miracle,” the overjoyed passengers shout to one another as they embrace in the airport lounge. Exceptional good fortune is often described by witnesses as a miracle, an astounding intervention of the divine into human history. More often than not seat belts, good medicine, and mechanical expertise explain jaw dropping events that first appeal to the imagination and only later to the intellect.
Yet, miracles, signs of divine intervention, have been an important element in salvation history since Moses and Aaron confronted the Pharaoh’s magicians in Egypt. “Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “You have seen with your own eyes all that the LORD did in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and all his servants and to all his land, the great testings your own eyes have seen, and those great signs and wonders,” the author of Deuteronomy notes. And certainly the New Testament abounds in miraculous cures, feedings, catches of fish, footsteps over water and even resurrections from the dead.
With this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, St. John begins his Scriptural narrative of seven signs, that is, seven miracles that clearly and graphically announce the intervention of God in human history through His Son, Jesus Christ.
The seven miraculous events that St. John understands to be signs, that is, evidence of God’s active willingness to get personally involved in a man or woman’s individual history as well as world history in general are all quite familiar Gospel episodes: 1) the wedding feast at Cana; 2) the cure of the royal official’s son; 3) the cure of the paralytic at the pool with five porticoes; 4) the multiplication of loaves; 5) the walking on water at the Sea of Galilee; 6) the cure of the young man born blind; and 7) the climatic raising of Lazarus from the dead. St. John understands these seven signs are the result of the direct intervention of God through Christ into history. These were indeed miracles. Neither medicine, nor cleverness, nor expertise could otherwise explain them. And most importantly these seven miraculous events, along with many other happenings in the Gospel narratives, instill and augment supernatural faith: “Jesus did this at the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.”
Professor Bart D. Ehrman, University of North Carolina, in his recent book, “The Triumph of Christianity,” observes that one of the chief opportunities for growth by early Christianity was the fascination of the once pagan world with reports of miracles which the young Church revered and recounted and relished. Note that the author does not write “miracles,” but rather “reports of miracles.”
Authentic miracles were no more frequent in the ancient world then they are in the modern world. But even the thought, the notion, that God would intervene in history through Christ and through his Church was compelling for the pagan neighbors of the first Christian believers. People were delighted with the idea that through Christ God was personally concerned about them.
Through Christ and his Church God could alert the believer, guide the believer, sustain the believer. Miraculous events recorded in Scripture and miracles effected at the hands of the saints, even if rare, attested to God’s personal involvement with mankind. Such divine intimacy stood in great contrast to the aloof divinities of the Greco-Roman world. People enjoyed the nearness of God through Christ.
In the second reading at this Sunday’s liturgy, St. Paul recounts another form of divine intimacy: the spiritual gifts bestowed, however subtly, on each believer. “To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another, the expression of knowledge according to the same spirit; to another, faith by the same Spirit; to another, gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another, mighty deeds; to another, prophecy; to another, discernment of spirits; to another, varieties of tongues; to another, interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.” The disciples began to believe because they witnessed the intervention of God in history at Cana. The Roman Empire began to believe, partially, because they heard accounts of God’s intervention in history from Christian preachers. Modern believers must recapture the notion of God’s willing intervention in each person’s history through his Son and his Son’s Church. God is ever near; His Spirit is ever active.