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Miraculous Signs Reveal Christ's Power
A text from St. Augustine offers us the key for interpreting Christ's miracles as signs of his saving power. "The fact that he became man for us contributed more to our salvation than the miracles he performed among us; and his healing of the evils of the soul is more important than the curing of the illnesses of the body which is doomed to death" (Augustine, In Io. Ev. Tr. 17, 1). For the salvation of the soul and the redemption of the whole world Jesus performed miracles of the corporeal order also. Hence the theme of the present reflection is as follows-by means of the "mighty deeds, wonders and signs" which he performed, Jesus Christ manifested his power to save the human race from the evil which threatens the immortal soul and the vocation to union with God.
This is revealed particularly in the healing of the paralytic of Capernaum. Since those who carried him were unable to enter by the door into the house where Jesus was teaching, they lowered the sick man through an opening in the roof so that he found himself at the feet of the Master. "Jesus, on seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.'" These words aroused among some of those present the suspicion of blasphemy, "This man is blaspheming! Who but God can forgive sins?" As though in response to those who had entertained these thoughts, Jesus said to those present, "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth-he said to the paralytic-'I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.' He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone" (cf. Mk 2:1-12; likewise Mt 9:1-8; Lk 5:18-26, "he went home glorifying God" Lk 5:25).
Jesus himself explained in this case that the miracle of curing the paralytic was a sign of the saving power whereby he forgives sins. Jesus performed this sign to show that he had come as Savior of the world. His principal task was to free mankind from spiritual evil, the evil that separates man from God and impedes salvation in God. That evil is sin.
With the same key one can explain that special category of Christ's miracles, the driving out of demons. According to Mark's Gospel, Jesus ordered, "Unclean spirit, come out of the man!" when Jesus met the man in the territory of the Gerasenes who had an unclean spirit (Mk 5:8). On that occasion we witness an unusual conversation. When that unclean spirit felt threatened by Christ, he cried out against Jesus, "'What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me!' Jesus asked him, 'What is your name?' He replied, 'Legion is my name. There are many of us'" (cf. Mk 5:7-9). We are therefore on the margin of an obscure world involving physical and psychical factors which undoubtedly play their part in causing pathological conditions. The demonic reality is inserted into that world. Variously represented and described in human language, the demonic world is radically hostile to God and therefore to man and to Christ who had come to free him from the power of evil. But in spite of himself, in that clash with the other presence, even the unclean spirit burst out into that admission coming from a perverse but lucid intelligence, "Son of the Most High God."
In Mark's Gospel we also find the description of the event usually described as the cure of the epileptic. The symptoms narrated by the evangelist are characteristic of this disease ("foaming at the mouth, grinding his teeth, and becoming rigid"). However the father of the epileptic presented his son to Jesus, describing the boy as one possessed by an evil spirit. The spirit would throw him into fits of convulsions and cast him down on the ground. The unfortunate youth would then roll about foaming at the mouth. It is indeed possible that in such a state of illness the evil one might insinuate himself and play a part. But even admitting that it was a case of epilepsy from which Jesus cured the youth reputed by his father as possessed by a devil, it is significant that Jesus effected the cure by ordering the "mute and deaf spirit" to "Come out of him and never enter him again" (cf. Mk 9:17-18). It is a reaffirmation of his mission and of his power to radically free the human person from spiritual evil.
Jesus made his mission clearly known-to free humanity from evil and first of all from sin, spiritual evil. This mission implies and explains his struggle with the evil spirit who is the prime author of evil in human history. As we read in the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly declared that this is the meaning of his work and of that of his apostles. We read in Luke: "I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power to tread...upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you" (Lk 10:18-19). According to Mark, after having appointed the Twelve, Jesus sent them forth "to preach and to have authority to drive out demons" (Mk 3:14-15). According to Luke the seventy-two disciples, after returning from their first mission, reported to Jesus, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name" (Lk 10:17).
This manifested the power of the Son of Man over sin and over the author of sin. Even the demons are subject to the name of Jesus, which means Savior. However, his saving power will have its definitive fulfillment in the sacrifice of the cross. The cross will mark the complete victory over Satan and sin. This is the Father's plan which his only-begotten Son fulfilled by becoming man, to conquer in weakness and to attain the glory of the resurrection and of life by means of the humiliation of the cross. The divine power shines forth even in this paradox, that power which can rightly be called the "power of the cross."
Even the victory over death, the dramatic consequence of sin, forms part of this power and belongs to the mission of the Savior of the world, manifested by "mighty deeds, wonders and signs." The victory over sin and over death marks the way of the messianic mission of Jesus from Nazareth to Calvary. Among the signs which particularly mark his journey toward the victory over death, the cases of people raised from the dead stand out. "The dead are raised" (Mt 11:5) was the answer Jesus gave to the messengers of John the Baptist (cf. Mt 11:3) when they questioned him whether he was the Messiah. Among the various dead people raised to life by Jesus, the case of Lazarus of Bethany merits special attention. His resurrection was a prelude to the cross and resurrection of Christ, which achieved the definitive victory over sin and death.
The evangelist John has left us a detailed description of this event. For us, let it suffice to refer to the final moment. Jesus asked that the stone which closed the tomb be removed ("Take away the stone"). The dead man's sister Martha observed that her brother had been dead for four days and that there would be a stench. Nevertheless Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" "And the dead man came out," the evangelist tells us (cf. Jn 11:38-43). This fact caused many of those present to believe in Jesus. Others, however, went to the representatives of the Sanhedrin to report the event. The chief priests and the Pharisees were alarmed, thinking of the possible reaction of the Roman occupying power ("the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation," Jn 11:45-48). At that very moment Caiphas' famous words broke the silence of the Sanhedrin, "You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish." The evangelist notes, "He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied." What was the nature of the prophecy? John gives us the Christian understanding of those words. "Jesus was to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God" (cf. Jn 11:49-52).
As is evident, John's description of the resurrection of Lazarus also contains the essential indications regarding the salvific significance of this miracle. They are definitive indications, because it was then that the Sanhedrin decided to put Jesus to death (cf. Jn 11:53). It will be the redemptive death "for the nation" and "to gather into one the dispersed children of God," for the salvation of the world. But Jesus has already said that his death would become the definitive victory over death. On the occasion of the resurrection of Lazarus he assured Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, shall live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die" (Jn 11:25-26).
At the end of our reflection we turn once more to the text of St. Augustine, "If we consider now the deeds worked by Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we see that the eyes of the blind, miraculously opened, were closed by death, and the limbs of the paralyzed, miraculously restored, were again immobilized in death. All that was temporarily cured in the mortal body, was in the end undone; but the soul that believed passed to eternal life. With this infirm man the Lord wished to give a great sign to the soul that would have believed, for the remission of whose sins he had come, and whose weaknesses he had healed by the humiliation of himself" (Augustine, In Io. Ev. Tr., 17, 1).
Yes, all the "mighty deeds, wonders and signs" of Christ are for the purpose of revealing him as Messiah, as Son of God, for the revelation of him who alone has the power to free mankind from sin and from death, of him who is truly the Savior of the world.