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What’s the point of miracles?

Fr. Lou DelFra | Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In these first weeks of Ordinary Time, we have been reading from the early chapters of Mark’s Gospel. These chapters are often predominated by the early miracles of Jesus — the exorcism of the man with an unclean spirit, the healing of a leper, the raising of the centurion’s daughter. They are, by definition, astounding miracles — but just barely, at least as Mark recounts them. That is to say, Mark unfurls the miracles (“Demon, come out of that man,” “Go, show yourself to the priest and be clean,” “Get the girl something to eat”) but in each case concludes with a most unexpected and severely underwhelming line, “Go home, and tell no one about this.”

Indeed, immediately after the exorcism of the possessed man, Mark’s focus shifts abruptly away from the miracle to the subject of Jesus’ teaching authority. The healed man virtually vanishes into thin air, as the crowd asks, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” The miracle is awe-inspiring, Mark suggests, but is really at the service of an even more important revelation (though the exorcised man may wish to argue this point).

The “Messianic secret” — Jesus’ recurring command “Don’t tell anyone” — is an important theme throughout Mark’s Gospel, as Jesus’ first miracles excite the towns of Galilee to near fever pitch and draw larger and larger crowds to gather. With every miracle Jesus performs, he asks, pleads and demands that the person healed, and the witnesses to the miracle, to not tell anyone about it.

Clearly, Jesus is reluctant to be over-identified with his miracles, or to be reduced to a mere “wonder-worker.” In fact, this seems to be one of Mark’s larger themes in the early chapters of his Gospel; the miracles of Jesus are but a revelation of something even more important. And we, the reader of these miracles, are left to wrestle with the question posed by the crowd after Jesus’ first miracle: “What is this?” That is, “What is the revelation that’s even greater than the miracle?” (Later, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus will bring this question to a head, as he asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am? And you, who do you say that I am?”) Perhaps it is the raising of this question, less than the miracles themselves, that is the point of Jesus’ early wonders.

As we know, there will be moments in our life of intense goodness, liberation, healing and “miracles.” We experience a much-wanted success in a class or in a relationship. An interview or job a senior wants comes through; someone sick in our families is healed; we feel joy or intimacy with God in our spiritual life. Yet, Mark warns us we can’t condition our discipleship to Christ based on such moments alone. Why not?

Because what happens when we don’t get the grade we wanted or the relationship doesn’t work out? What happens when we, or one of our friends, do not get the job? When the family member does not recover physically? When we don’t feel God’s presence powerfully in our spiritual life? If success and “miracles” are our signs that God is present, do these experiences of apparent failure signify the absence of God? If you are Mark writing chapter one of a story you know will lead eventually to Calvary and the apparent “failure” of the Cross, the “success” of Jesus’ early miracles must be handled with this reality in mind. And, likewise, Christ is present in our own lives. Do we follow him just so he might perform miracles, remove all obstacles, stress and suffering from our lives?

On the one hand, our faith tells us God is present at every moment of our lives. On the other hand, the dynamics of conditional love tell us that “God” is only present when we have “done well” or when good things happen. The Gospel of Mark decisively challenges this spiritual attitude. Mark is clear through his incessant inclusion of Jesus’ command to “not tell anyone” of the miracle that the main point of the miracle is not the confirmation that God is with us. For Jesus came to reveal this is always true ­— miracle or not, “the Kingdom of God is in our midst.” Whether Jesus is experiencing the “success” of healing a leper, or the “failure” of hanging from the Cross, God is with him. And the same is true for us.

So, perhaps the main point of the little miracles in our lives — the moments of triumph, healing, success — is the raising in our hearts of the question: “What is this?” “Who has done this?” “Am I willing to come to know the author of this grace even more deeply … and to risk following him, come what may?”

This week’s column is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, director of Pastoral Life for ACE and member of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at

delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.