On Miracles and Sacraments

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – B

    The miracle recounted in St. Mark’s Gospel today is certainly one that catches our attention simply by the manner in which Jesus chooses to cure this deaf man. While In some miracles Jesus merely wills the cure and the miracle takes place, as in the healing of the Roman Centurion’s servant, in today’s account of a healing, we see Jesus choosing to use physical gestures along with words. In similar instances Jesus will lay hands on the person, as in a ritual act, or apply mud, made with his own spittle, to a blind man’s eyes. And in today’s Gospel we see Jesus “put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!”, that is, “Be opened!”

    Since Jesus clearly was able to cure with just a word and act of his will, what might be his purpose in these miracles where he acts ritualistically, using gestures and even physical elements like the mud? Why is it that Jesus in some cases uses these physical actions, when he could have displayed his divine power by just willing the miracle to take place and using words? And why, we might ask, does the Holy Spirit move the Evangelists to retain these strange miracle accounts, when future generations might find them very strange in their accomplishment, or might misinterpret his gestures as those of a magician, whereas the simple commanded miracles point more clearly to the omnipotence of God?

    One thing seems certain – God had a purpose in Jesus’ working miracles in this fashion, and God had a purpose in retaining their memory in the Sacred Scriptures to the end of time. It may indeed be true that some people today find these miracles accomplished by Jesus’ physical gestures unseemly or primitive, or even disturbing. But then for the past couple of centuries many Christians, wanting to appear respectable before the irreligious skeptics of our world, have tried to explain away the miraculous itself. They see these accounts perhaps as just a matter of legend making by the early Church, legends mythologizing Jesus to shore up faith in him as the divinely appointed Messiah, or they see them perhaps as beautiful symbolic fictions meant simply to teach us some truth or moral lesson.

    For several centuries now the secular enlightened intelligentsia have mocked the very idea of miracles, because they reject any belief in God, or belief in a God who interferes with history or the laws of physics, and most of all in a God who actually becomes man. The miracle accounts have thus become embarrassing to certain Christians, and these miracles with physical elements involved in the cure are the most embarrasing of all; so primitive, so childish, fairy tales for a previous less enlightened age. They have left all that behind, the supernatural, the miraculous, real resurrections, the whole lot, including for more and more such enlightened Christians the very idea that Jesus was God, or even the Messiah for all mankind. Why miracles then? To prove what?

    But then, we simple Christians continue to believe the faith of the Fathers, the faith of the Apostles, the faith of the Church, that Jesus was not only the true Messiah, but even more wonderfully that Jesus was in fact truly God Almighty who became man for our salvation. If one really believes that God has become a man, it is surely not asking too much of that same faith to recognize that the God/man would be capable of performing miracles, and would have reasons for doing so. Miracles may not make us believe in God, but belief in God certainly enables us to rationally accept miracles as divine acts in human history.

    Indeed the Old Testament clearly professes faith in God, and the faith of Israel was certainly intertwined with God’s miraculous interventions, and their faith was certainly strengthened and confirmed, though not caused by God’s working of powerful miracles in the course of His historical interaction with the chosen people. For if God really does choose to become involved in this world, indeed involved with a people’s history, or chooses to become an actual member of that people and it’s history, one should not be surprised that God might also choose to use his infinite power to accomplish his purposes in becoming involved with that people in the first place.

    We know what God’s purpose was in getting involved in human history through the Chosen people. His purpose was to redeem the human race and bring salvation to those who believed in His Word. So the miracles of Jesus have this same overarching purpose, they are in the service of his mission of salvation, and so what he does, and however he chooses to produce these miraculous effects, we must look to the end purpose he has in mind, our salvation, if we are to understand these events in their full meaning for us.

    So, the use of his physical gestures, which means the use of his own physical body as an instrument for producing supernatural effects, becomes more intelligible if we really believe in the sacraments of the Church. Our seven sacraments are, after all, very much like these physical gestures by which Jesus sometimes chose to produce miracles. If Jesus chose to produce miracles sometimes by words, other times by physical acts, it surely had to do with the future of the Church he came to establish. By these miracles of word and miracles of physical signs or gestures, Jesus is showing the people their future, the time of the Church when He will produce even more wonderful supernatural effects through the words and gestures that compose the seven sacraments of the Church. Indeed, the effects of the sacraments are even more wonderful than the effects of these miracles he once performed, because these effects themselves are truly supernatural, producing in our souls the life of Grace, the healing of grace, the transformation by Grace into children of God. Whereas with the New Testament miracles, only the mode of producing these effects was supernatural, while the effects themselves were purely natural. Even the life he restored to the little daughter of Jairus, or the widow’s son, or Lazarus was merely a natural gift, and one that they would inevitably have to forfeit again. Whereas the life he produces in our souls by the sacraments is a truly supernatural effect, supernatural life, the life of God, which is by its very nature Eternal.

    Jesus performed these miracles by physical signs to make sure that we did not lose the true significance of his Incarnation for our lives. God chose to become flesh and blood, so we could see him and hear him and touch him, and by these very human means, make our way back to God. The sacraments of the Church continue this pattern of salvation. God has chosen to make what is invisible become present and communicated to us through what is visible; first through the Incarnation where we see our God in human form in the humanity of our savior; then through the Church and her sacraments which are but a continuation of this mystery of God communicating invisible realities through the visible.

    In the Baptism of a child, after using water to communicate the spiritual cleansing of the souls and the gift of supernatural life to that now pure soul, the priest then repeats this gesture of Jesus in today’s Gospel, by touching the ears and mouth of the newly baptized Christian, and praying that they be opened. Ephphatha, be opened, said Jesus, and the man could hear and speak. The minister prays, may your ears be opened to hear his Gospel, and your mouth be opened to proclaim his Gospel. The power to hear the word of God is something supernatural and comes from God; the courage to proclaim His Gospel is something supernatural and comes again from God.

    We have been given these supernatural gifts through Baptism, and they are strengthened trough Confirmation, the Eucharist and the other sacraments. They are gifts to be used for the glory of God. We must not remain deaf to God’s Word or mute before the world which denies his presence and activity in our lives. God has given us these gifts not just for our salvation, but for others who must hear of God through our witness, and come to God through our witness. If we really believe in the Gospel, and the power of the sacraments, then we must act on behalf of the Lord: that is why he says to us as to the deaf man: Ephphatha, may your ears be open to truly hear His Gospel, and may your mouths be open to proclaim his truth to the Glory of God the Father, Amen.

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Categories: Homilies

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