Friday, June 7, 2013

So which is it?

Tenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Albert Einstein once said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." So which is it?

Both the first reading and the gospel provide us with putative miracle stories involving the resurrection of dead persons. ‘Why putative?’ you may ask. Is it a miracle or isn’t it? Well, at least that seems to be the conclusion of the eye-witnesses, the faith communities that passionately shared and passed on these stories, the Bible authors who meticulously collated the oral traditions and recorded the same for posterity, and the contemporary believer who reads these tales through the lenses of faith. On the other side of the fence, the modern sceptic may come to an entirely different conclusion. He comes with kid-gloves off, equipped with the reliable weapons of modern science and literary hermeneutics, ready to spar with the naively gullible. The sceptic attempts to peel away what he considers layers of filters, myth-making, primitive beliefs and provide the story with a more plausible interpretation that accords with modern sensibilities. Rather than a resurrection of a dead person, he is more likely to read the stories as accounts of the resuscitation of comatose persons. So, which is it?

Was Jesus a healer, a miracle worker, the Son of God or a practitioner of medical science? So which is it? In recent decades, strenuous efforts have been made and are still being made by many biblical scholars to represent that the miracles of Jesus Christ as myths and nothing more. Many, in their zeal have even denied that these miracles ever took place. They often state that they do this so that Jesus as a person can emerge in purity without all the myth surrounding Him. Their goal is the ‘Historical Jesus’, one free of the idealised or ‘idolised’ accretion of faith. While this may be a lofty goal, many have gone too far as we human beings are often wont to do. They have altogether thrown the child out with the bath. They often end up denying the two scriptural beliefs that form the foundation of our Christian faith, the Incarnation, the event of God becoming man, and the Resurrection, Christ rising from the dead. So, which is it? Did it really happened or didn’t it?

I think the real problem is that many people, both believers and non-believers included, are often of the opinion that religion and science are mutually exclusive; that they are incompatible. Unbelievers, atheists and sceptics often think that faith is pre-scientific nonsense and pure superstition or mythology. It is easy for them to make fun of popular religion, whether it is the simple pietism of Roman Catholics, amid the plastic holy water bottles in the shape of the Virgin at Lourdes, the masses who flock to alleged miraculous sites to gain some personal favour, to the poorly-educated happy-clappy Evangelicals and Pentecostals and the naively gullible who spend their live savings investing in holy schemes, fail-safe novenas and miraculous handkerchiefs.  According to the former, the latter have abdicated reason when it comes to faith.  It is interesting to note that both fideism (exclusive reliance on faith alone and the exclusion of reason) and rationalism (the rejection of any knowledge that cannot be supported empirically or proven scientifically) are rejected by the Church and considered erroneous and heretical positions.

For true believers, it’s never an issue of choosing between faith and reason. The question, ‘which is it’, is misplaced. The Catholic Church consistently teaches that faith is not opposed to reason. Rather, faith seeks understanding, ‘fides quarens intellectum.’ Faith is never a sacrifice of the intellect. But it also takes humility, as Einstein reminds us, to recognise that rationality and sciences has its limitations. Is it not possible that there is a faculty of understanding in human-beings which is neither rational, nor irrational, but rather 'supra-rational', beyond the reason, higher than the reason? In other words, although faith does not contradict reason, faith can go beyond the limitations of reason. Blessed John Paul II, in the  introduction to his encyclical letter entitled "Fides et Ratio” (Faith and Reason), explained it beautifully: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth-in a word, to know himself-so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."

While it is important to see the gospel stories in a historically critical manner in order to get to the original intention of the biblical authors, going so far as to deny that the miracles of Jesus were real is missing the point altogether. His miracles were an essential part of His ministry. Quite aside from the obvious human angle of the relief of suffering that the miracles achieved, they were also a most important way of arousing the faith of his people. Miracles are challenges to faith. The people were meant to go beyond the miracles, beyond the spectacular and crowd pleasing firework displays, and come into contact with the saving Word of God which would change their lives. The people were aroused from their spiritual lethargy and inspired to follow the Word Incarnate, and finally to reap the ultimate gift which Jesus had intended to give them and all of us, eternal life.

Jesus’ miracles are not so much displays of power as they are signs of the presence of God’s Kingdom in the person of Jesus. Their significance in Jesus’ life and ministry is captured nicely in his own words: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you” (Lk 11:20). This saying provides the key to a proper understanding of Jesus’ miracles. During his lifetime there was little doubt about Jesus’ ability to heal and perform other types of miracles. Even his opponents acknowledged his power to do such actions. Their question concerned the origin or source of Jesus’ powers. Did his power come from God or from Satan? In response, Jesus tried to show the absurdity of their question, because his miracles were clearly signs of God’s victory over Satan and the defeat of the powers of evil. The miracles proclaim the arrival of the kingdom of God, and the era of Christ (Lk 11 : 20; Mt 11: 4-5). They were meant to give us a fore-taste of Paradise. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was quick to warn that Jesus’ primary mission was not to “abolish all evils here below, but to free men from the gravest slavery, sin, which thwarts them in their vocation as God’s sons and causes all forms of human bondage. (CCC 549)

For many, miracles have become an end in themselves. They have become obsessed in looking for sensational signs and wonders. They too miss the point. These people fail to recognise that miracles are not intended to “satisfy people’s curiosity or desire for magic” (CCC 549). They fail to recognise that this preoccupation detracts from the ultimate purpose of miracles. Miracles reveal the mystery of Christ who stands behind these signs and symbols. Miracles act as signposts and neon lights pointing to the greatest miracle of all – the salvation of humanity through the Incarnation of the one who is the life and resurrection of all believers. While the Incarnation is the root miracle of salvation, the Resurrection is the definitive and ultimate sign. If there should be any miracle that should attract our attention and earn our adulation, it should be these central mysteries of faith. Therefore, any Catholic who gives their primary attention to alleged private revelations and putative miracles at the expense of ignoring the central mysteries faith contained in Sacred Scripture, the teaching of the Church, sacramental life, prayer and fidelity to Church authority is off course.

Miracles will always have as their primary purpose the glorification of God and the calling of people to salvation. The signs worked by Jesus attest to His divine authority and invite belief in Him (cf. Catechism, no. 548). They show us that the one who cured blindness, leprosy and paralysis is the same one who provides us shelter and haven from the roaring winds and raging seas. They reveal that the one who changed water into wine, is the new Wine of the Eternal Covenant, the never drying fountain and source of living water.   The ultimate aim of the miracles of Jesus is to give us the wonderful experience of Heavenly Bliss in God's Kingdom. After His Ascension and Pentecost, Christ's disciples worked miracles in the name of Christ, thus giving the people signs of His divinity and proofs that He is who they said He is. In the same way later saints worked miracles to testify to a higher authority and that people are called to His kingdom. But miracles aren’t the main point! It is what those miracles point to and lead us to that is fundamentally important – the salvation of souls; this is the primary mission of the Church. The Church’s mission, all its prayers, rites and activities, are directed and devoted to the salvation of souls: calling people to turn from the Way of Death and to embrace the Way of Life.

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