Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on March 6, 2018 as part of the Lenten sermon series on “divine questions,” at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
Why does this generation seek a sign? (Mk 8:12)
That question of Our Lord prompts me to lead you this evening in a reflection on the meaning of miracles, both biblical and post-biblical, the topic of two volumes of the work of Blessed John Henry Newman – which I would commend to the more stalwart among you.
It seems that there are always two opposing approaches to the miraculous: the first denies the possibility of any divine interventions ever, while the second finds a miracle under every tree or on every hamburger! As usual, the Church declares, “in medio stat virtus” (virtue stands in the middle).
Let’s consult the dictionary for its definition of a miracle: “A wonderful happening that is contrary to or independent of the known laws of nature.” Now, what does Christian faith add to the picture? From the start, we must admit that the picture is far from clear. On the one hand, we sense Our Lord’s annoyance with wonder-seekers, as we hear Him say, “unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe” [Jn 4:48]. On the other hand, He promises His disciples that they will work signs even greater than His [cf. Jn 14:12]. Indeed, the performance of miracles by the early believers in Christ was seen as confirmatory of their message [cf. Acts 2:43].
Some years ago, traveling in Jerusalem in a taxi operated by a non-practicing Jew, I noticed with interest how the driver consistently referred to Our Lady as “the Virgin.” Finally, I asked him, point-blank: “Do you believe that Mary was a virgin?” “Why not, Father?” came the quick retort. I pressed on: “How many mothers do you know that remain virgins?” “Look,” he replied, “if Almighty God could make the whole universe, don’t you think he could make a nice little Jewish girl a mother and keep her a virgin at the same time?” That non-practicing Jew had retained an appreciation of the miraculous which is rooted in the Bible. In truth, he understood that the same God was and is working throughout, a point made in the lovely line of Cardinal Avery Dulles when he declares, “If nature is God’s prose, miracles may perhaps be called his poetry.” Dulles goes on to assert that “to drop out the miraculous element from Christianity is, inevitably, to mutilate the Gospel.” So, what does the Bible tell us about God’s “poetry”?
Cardinal Newman observes that miracles in the Old Testament are rather scarce; this may surprise those who are used to viewing the Old Testament through the prism of Cecil B. DeMille. Miracles, however, were to blossom at the coming of the Messiah, according to Jewish thought – a proof of his identity and a sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. And so, as few and far between as they are in the Old Dispensation, we find them popping up on almost every page of the New Testament. It is interesting that no one (not even Jesus’ enemies, whether pagan Romans or hostile Jewish religious authorities) suggests that He did not work miracles; His opponents merely seek to explain them away by asserting either that they are little more than a magician’s tricks (which is why St. John never uses the word “miracle,” preferring “sign”) or that He is able to do such marvelous works because He is in league with the Devil.
So, from even a purely critical, objective, and historical standpoint, the miracles of Jesus should be undisputed. The problem surfaces for some, however, when it comes to what Newman calls “ecclesiastical” miracles, that is, miracles occurring in the age of the Church. And the Cardinal has a very engaging response to such skeptics:
Catholics, then, hold the mystery of the Incarnation; and the Incarnation is the most stupendous event which ever can take place on earth; and after it and henceforth, I do not see how we can scruple at any miracle on the mere ground of its being unlikely to happen. No miracle can be so great as that which took place in the Holy House of Nazareth; it is indefinitely more difficult to believe than all the miracles of the Breviary, of the Martyrology, of saints’ lives, of legends, of local traditions, put together; and there is the grossest inconsistency on the very face of the matter, for anyone so to strain out the gnat and to swallow the camel, as to profess what is inconceivable, yet to protest against what is surely within the limits of intelligible hypothesis. If, through divine grace, we once are able to accept the solemn truth that the Supreme Being was born of a mortal woman, what is there to be imagined which can offend us on the ground of its marvellousness?1
In other words, if the Incarnation is true (which every Christian must believe) – and it is undoubtedly the greatest miracle imaginable – then why grouse about other miracles? The principle is simple: If God can do the greater, He can do the lesser.
That said, we can and should ask, “Why does God enable human beings to work miracles? Or why miraculous events?” For two reasons, says St. Thomas Aquinas:
First and principally, in confirmation of the doctrine that a man teaches. For since those things which are of faith surpass human reason, they cannot be proved by human arguments, but need to be proved by the argument of divine power: so that when a man does works that God alone can do, we may believe that what he says is from God: just as when a man is the bearer of letters sealed with the king’s ring, it is to be believed that what they contain expresses the king’s will.
Aquinas goes on to offer a second purpose: “To make known God’s presence in a man by the grace of the Holy Ghost: so that when a man does the works of God we may believe that God dwells in him by His grace.”2 That said, Aquinas concedes that “miracles lessen the merit of faith,” but – nonetheless – he declares, “it is better for them to be converted to the faith even by miracles than that they should remain altogether in their unbelief.”3
Truth be told, the Church herself always exhibits a healthy skepticism when such extraordinary events are reported, with the presumption that the “seer” is either a deceiver or self-deceived. Which prompted Cardinal Jean Honoré of Tours (a Newman scholar in his own right) to state quite bluntly: “Contrary to what certain Christians may think, [the Church’s] attitude is not one of favorable disposition, but rather of skepticism and of the most extreme reserve.” Clear criteria exist to test the veracity of the claim of supernatural character, among which are the orthodoxy of the message; the spirit of willing submission to ecclesiastical judgment on the part of the visionary; good fruits flowing from the event. Investigations into visions are conducted at the local or diocesan level, through recourse to theologians, pastors, psychiatrists and other professionals in a position to evaluate the spiritual, physical and mental state of the seer. Some investigations result in relatively quick judgments (usually negative), while other investigations can go on for years and may yield an indeterminate decision. It has been estimated that for every alleged apparition the Church accepts, there are a hundred that never receive a favorable judgment.
Sometimes people ask, “What does it matter if a vision is really occurring or not, as long as good things are happening (e.g., conversions, cures)?” It matters a great deal because the act of faith must always be grounded in reality and truth; it can never be based on a falsehood. That is why the Evangelists went to great pains to convince their readers that the Lord’s resurrection appearances were real and not phantasms; hence, the stress on His eating and drinking and being able to be touched. Belief is serious business, and God wants no one to be duped for He is, as the traditional act of faith, declares, the One Who “can neither deceive nor be deceived.”
The present moment in history finds us confronted with hundreds of purported supernatural visitations. This proliferation is not cause for rejoicing; on the contrary, it suggests that people are not being spiritually fed through the normal means of grace (good catechesis and preaching; uplifting celebrations of the sacraments; strong witnesses to Christian living), and so, they run after cheap substitutes. Jesus cautioned us against such a spirit: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign.” He continued: “But no sign shall be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet” (Mt 12:39). Jonah’s message was a call to repentance; his sign in the belly of the whale for three days and nights was a prefigurement of Christ’s very Passion, Death and Resurrection. Time after time, the Blessed Virgin, Queen of Prophets, directs us toward the “sign of Jonah” as she urges repentance through reception of the Sacrament of Penance and an experience of her Son’s Paschal Mystery through a worthy and devout reception of the Holy Eucharist.
Not infrequently, we hear people say, “If I had lived during the Lord’s earthly life and ministry and had seen his mighty deeds, my faith would have been so much stronger than it is now.” Once again, Cardinal Newman has a penetrating response:
. . . we are really far more favoured than they were [those who witnessed biblical miracles]; they had outward miracles; we too have miracles, but they are not outward but inward. Ours are not miracles of evidence, but of power and influence. They are secret, and more wonderful and efficacious because secret. Their miracles were wrought upon external nature; the sun stood still, and the sea parted. Ours are invisible, and are exercised upon the soul. They consist in the sacraments, and they just do that very thing which the Jewish miracles did not. They really touch the heart, though we so often resist their influence. If then we sin, as, alas! we do, if we do not love God more than the Jews did, if we have no heart for those “good things which pass men’s understanding,” we are not more excusable than they, but less so. For the supernatural works which God showed to them were wrought outwardly, not inwardly, and did not influence the will; they did but convey warnings; but the supernatural works which He does towards us are in the heart, and impart grace; and if we disobey, we are not disobeying His command only, but resisting His presence.4
We are about to witness and benefit from the greatest miracle possible, let us ask for the grace never to “resist His presence.”
1John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908), p. 305.
2Summa Theologiae, III, Q. 43, Art. 1.
4“Miracles No Remedy for Unbelief,” PPS, pp. 86-87.