Over 30 per cent of the verses of St Mark’s Gospel is taken up with stories of miracles. The Latin word ‘miraculum’ means something that causes wonder. James McPolin SJ says the miracles of our day are those which speak to our world of liberation, of human dignity, health, justice peace and freedom.
The Gospels tell us that large crowds kept following Jesus because they saw the ‘signs’ he was doing for the sick. Jesus was considered to be a man of great deeds, of wonders. Indeed, to his contemporaries it was the most remarkable thing about him.
The Gospels give us remarkably detailed and moving accounts of his miracles: ‘That evening at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases.’ (Mk. ch. 1).
For many people the miracles of Jesus highlight his compassion. But the two questions which are most frequently asked about them are: did they really happen and what is their meaning?
Can miracles happen?
Do they happen? The question of the possibility and actual occurrence of miracles is the first question any inquirer would raise in a discussion of the miracles of Jesus. Some believers and non-believers do not believe much in miracles.
Others, especially traditional Christians believe strongly in them. How do we explain this? Do modern Christians not believe in miracles any more? Did Jesus work miracles? What is a miracle?
What is a miracle?
How would we describe a miracle? Perhaps like this: it is an unusual, startling or extraordinary event, which in principle, may be perceived by any interested and fair-minded observer, an event that finds no reasonable explanation in human abilities or in any other known forces that operate in our world of time and place; an event that is the result of a special act of God, doing what no human power can do.
Those who do not believe in the power of God among us do not believe in miracles. But any historian who seeks to portray the historical Jesus without giving due weight to his fame as a miracle-worker is not delineating the Jesus of the Gospels.
The statement that Jesus acted as and was viewed as a miracle-worker during his public ministry has as much historical confirmation as almost any other statement we can make about the Jesus of history.
There is a widespread attestation of miracles in our earliest sources (e.g. the Gospels) and this is often multiple, that is, some miracles in one Gospel are confirmed by other Gospels. We cannot dismiss out of hand the massive testimony of the Gospels.
In fact, the miracles form a substantial part of the Gospels. For example, miracle stories make up 209 out of 666 verses of the Gospel of Mark, that is, 31% of the whole Gospel. Also, many types of miracles are described such as exorcisms, healings, miracles of raising the dead and some miracles called ‘nature miracles’ (walking on the water, calming a storm, multiplication of loaves, etc.). But sometimes the way miracles are written about is difficult to understand.
In a recent very thorough assessment of all the miracles in the Gospels, an American scholar, John Meier, points out that in some few cases it is difficult to know whether the Gospel writers base their stories on historical events or whether the early Church is creating a miracle story to symbolise an important religious teaching.
At times we cannot guarantee the historical accuracy of all the details. But even in such cases these stories convey a religious teaching about Jesus, for example, about his power. However, sensationalism does not characterise the Gospel accounts.
Outside the Gospels we do have some reports about sensational miracles performed by Jesus as a child in certain books (called ‘apocryphal books’). These lack an historical basis. At times, but rarely, it seems there is a tendency to magnify and multiply some miracles. That is, some miracles are described twice, giving the impression that there are two distinct miracles. But it is more important to ask about the meaning of the miracles of Jesus.
The miracle – its meaning
The word ‘miracle’ comes from the Latin word ‘miraculum’, meaning something that causes wonder. The Bible speaks a lot about the ‘wonderful’ things God does for the people.
A miracle is a wonderful event or situation in which we see God revealed. A miracle is anything that makes us stop and think because it reveals God’s love and God’s call. The Bible does not speak of distinctions like ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’.
Miracles are Christ-centred
Above all, in the Gospels the miracles are always Christ-centred. Jesus sometimes insists with the religious leaders that they should not be looking for sensational signs and wonders. They should look for the meaning of Jesus’ miracles so that they come to know his power and his love.
In all these wonders a loving heart sees the hand of a friend. Where this eye of friendship (faith) is absent, not even God can achieve anything. That is why Jesus could not do any miracles in Nazareth, because of the lack of this vision, because of the lack of this faith among the people (Mk. ch. 6).
Signs and wonders
The words most used in the Bible to desciribe what we today call miracles are ‘signs’, ‘powers’ and ‘wonders.’ The fundamental characteristic of a miracle is that it reveals the active presence of God (or Jesus), i.e., his power, his love that acts and produces a wonder and attracts attention and so becomes a sign of God.
Jesus sometimes reminds the people that they should not look for the sensational in miracles. Rather they are to see miracles as a call to love and a manifestation of Jesus’ power and compassion. If we look at the whole range of Jesus’ miracles, we find that his miraculous activity touches the most vulnerable areas of human life, for example, diseases, hunger, blindness, death, sin and evil. Above all, it manifests the compassion of Jesus.
Jesus did not work miracles just for the sake of it. He does not work them to satisfy human curiosity or for self-promotion. He refuses Herod when he wants him to do something spectacular. He refuses to work them for himself when he is on the cross and when his enemies are shouting: ‘Let him come down from the cross now and we will believe in him’ (Lk. ch. 23; Mt. ch. 27). On various occasions Jesus indiciates the meaning of his miracles. For example, when John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask: ‘Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?’, Jesus replied: ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’ (Mt. ch. 11). When the poor, the blind, the infirm and the deaf are cared for among us, we could say that a miracle is taking place.
Miracles and magic
Sometimes the miracles of Jesus are compared with those of some Greco-Roman philosophers and some Jewish holy teachers around the time of Jesus. It is possible for such holy people to work miracles, even if evidence for this is not clear.
In the ancient world miracles were often accepted as part of the religious landscape. Yet we cannot call Jesus’ miracles magic in the strict sense.
The context of miracles in the Gospels differs from that of magic because it is one of faith, trust and discipleship. The petitioner or audience of the miracle enters into a personal (not magical) relationship with God or Jesus, both of whom are conceived in highly personal terms.
Besides, Jesus’ miracles do not directly punish or hurt anyone. Greek incantations and some modern forms of witchcraft include spells for causing strife and manipulation and getting rid of enemies.
Miracles, point to Jesus’ care, compassion and his meaning for our lives. They point to the question posed by many people in the Gospels: ‘who is Jesus?’ (Mk. ch. 4). They are acts of liberation from all those powers and evils that oppress the poor and the suffering.
Raising the question of miracles today means that as Christians We are invited to seek and realise concrete signs that speak to our world of liberation such as human dignity, human life, health, justice, peace and freedom.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (October 2002), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.