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Christ's Miracles: Salvific Signs
There is no doubt about the fact that in the Gospels Christ's miracles are presented as signs of the kingdom of God which has entered the history of mankind and of the world. "If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you," Jesus said (Mt 12:28). Whatever may be said or has been said on the subject of miracles (and this was answered by the Christian apologists), it is certain that one cannot separate from the authentic Gospel context the "mighty deeds, wonders and signs" attributed to Jesus, and even to his apostles and disciples "working in his name." In the apostolic preaching from which the Gospels principally derive, the early Christians heard the testimony of eyewitnesses about those extraordinary events which had occurred in the recent past and could therefore be checked under the critical-historical aspect. For that reason they were not surprised that they were included in the Gospel. Regardless of the objections of later times, one thing emerges as certain from the genuine sources of Christ's life and teaching. The apostles, the evangelists, and the whole primitive Church saw in each of those miracles the supreme power of Christ over nature and its laws. He who reveals God as Father, Creator and Lord of creation, when performing miracles by his own power, reveals himself as Son, one in being with the Father and equal to him in lordship over creation.
Some miracles, however, present other aspects which complement the basic significance of proof of the divine power of the Son of Man in the order of the economy of salvation.
Speaking of the first sign performed at Cana of Galilee, the evangelist John observed that by means of that sign Jesus "manifested his glory and his disciples believed in him" (Jn 2:11). The miracle therefore has a finality of faith, but it took place during a wedding feast. One may therefore say that, at least in the evangelist's intention, the "sign" serves to emphasize the whole divine economy of the covenant and of grace which is frequently expressed in the image of marriage in the books of the Old and New Testaments. The miracle at Cana of Galilee could therefore be related to the parable of the wedding feast which a king had prepared for his son, and with the eschatological kingdom of heaven which is similar to such a banquet (cf. Mt 22:2). Jesus' first miracle could be understood as a sign of this kingdom, especially since "Jesus' hour," that is, the hour of his passion and glorification, had not yet arrived (Jn 2:4; cf. 7:30; 8:20; 12:23-27; 13:1; 17:1). That "hour" was to be prepared by the preaching of the "Gospel of the kingdom" (cf. Mt 4:23; 9:35). The miracle obtained through Mary's intercession can be considered as a sign and a symbolic announcement of what was about to happen.
The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves which took place near Capernaum can be understood much more clearly as a sign of the economy of salvation. John linked it to the discourse held by Jesus the following day. He insisted on the necessity of acquiring through "faith in him who has sent me" (Jn 6:29), the food that does not perish. He spoke of himself as the true bread which "gives life to the world" (cf. Jn 6:33), and indeed as the one who gives his flesh "for the life of the world" (cf. Jn 6:51). The pre-announcement of the salvific passion and death is clear, not without reference to and preparation for the Eucharist which was to be instituted on the day before his passion, as the sacrament-bread of eternal life (cf. Jn 6:52-58).
The calming of the storm on the Lake of Genesareth can be understood as a sign of the constant presence of Christ in the barque of the Church, which is frequently exposed to the fury of the wind during stormy periods in the course of history. Awakened by the disciples, Jesus rebuked the wind and the sea and there was a great calm. Then he said to them, "Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?" (Mk 4:40). In this, as in other events, one perceives Jesus' will to inculcate in the apostles and disciples faith in his operative and protective presence. This is true even in the most tempestuous periods of history in which the human spirit might possibly be tempted by a doubt about Jesus' divine assistance. Christian preaching and spirituality frequently interpret the miracle as a sign of Jesus' presence and a guarantee of trust in him on the part of Christians and of the Church.
Going toward his disciples walking on the water, Jesus offered them another sign of his presence, and gave an assurance of a constant watchfulness over his disciples and the Church. "Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!" Jesus said to the apostles who had thought he was a ghost (cf. Mk 6:49-50; cf. also Mt 14:26-27; Jn 6:16-21). Mark notes the apostles' astonishment "because they had not understood the incident of the loaves and their hearts were hardened" (Mk 6:52). Matthew recounts Peter's question and his desire to get out of the boat and walk on the water toward Jesus. Matthew records Peter's fear and his cry for help when he saw that he was beginning to sink. Jesus saved him but rebuked him gently, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" (Mt 14:31). Matthew also adds that "those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, 'Truly, you are the Son of God'" (Mt 14:33).
The miraculous catches of fish are, for the apostles and the Church, the signs of the fruitfulness of their mission if they remain deeply united to Christ's saving power (cf. Lk 5:4-10; Jn 21:3-6). Indeed Luke includes in the narrative the fact that Peter threw himself at the knees of Jesus exclaiming, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Lk 5:8). Jesus replied, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men" (Lk 5:10). John in his turn follows up the catch of fish after the resurrection with Christ's command to Peter, "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep" (cf. Jn 21:15-17). It is a significant association.
So it can be said that Christ's miracles are a manifestation of the divine omnipotence in regard to creation, which is revealed in his messianic power over people and things. At the same time, they are signs which reveal the divine work of salvation. This is the economy of salvation which is introduced with Christ, is realized definitively in human history, and is thus inscribed in this visible world which is also a divine work. The people-like the apostles on the lake-seeing Christ's miracles ask themselves, "Who is this whom even the wind and the sea obey?" (Mt 4:41). Through these signs they are prepared to welcome the salvation offered to humanity by God in his Son.
This is the essential scope of all the miracles and signs wrought by Christ in the presence of his contemporaries, and of those miracles which, in the course of history, would be performed by his apostles and disciples in reference to the saving power of his name: "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!" (Acts 3:6).