Lord of Miracles- Luke 8:22-56

9 Jun

In a small indigenous community there lived an elderly woman whose daily task was to carry the villagers’ clothing to the nearby river, wherein she would wash it. The humble old lady had little money and few personal belongings, though she had saved about seventy Spanish Real, enough to buy herself a small crucifix in the village’s religious goods market.

 

One day, she had finished her work washing clothes in the river and was preparing to go to market to buy the crucifix when a man walked past with his head downcast and with tears in his eyes. The man was on his way to prison because he owed seventy Real in taxes that he was too poor to pay. The man’s plight was well-known in the village; he often lacked the means necessary to support his wife and his young children. The old woman was moved with pity for the poor debtor, so to keep him out of prison she gave him her entire savings with which she had intended to purchase the crucifix. The man was overwhelmed with gratitude toward the woman, and he blessed her for her selfless gift that had saved him from going to jail.

 

Some days later, the woman was, as usual, at the river washing the villagers’ clothes. As she laboured, unnoticed by anyone with her hands below the surface of the water, the current pushed a small wooden object against the cloth that was in her submerged hand. The woman was unsure of what had touched her hand, since her sight was failing due to age, and the piece of clothing she was holding was thick. Hoping to look more closely at the wooden object that had become wrapped in cloth, she lifted it out of the water and, bringing it almost to the tip of her nose, she unwrapped it. Within the bands of cloth, there was a crucifix that was an exact replica of the one in the marketplace. It fit perfectly into the old woman’s palm.

 

Since she had been working in the river above the village, the woman knew that the crucifix could not have belonged to any of the villagers; it had miraculously appeared in the river. The old woman carried the crucifix back to her home and with great joy she built a small altar upon which to rest it. Then, exhausted from her day’s work, she fell asleep.

 

She was abruptly awakened from her slumber after a short time by a low knocking noise coming from the wooden altar she had constructed. The woman found that the crucifix on the altar, once small enough to fit the palm of her hand, had grown. Thinking that her vision had deteriorated so much over time, the aged woman took the crucifix to the priests and to the village’s elders. They agreed that the image of the crucified Lord had indeed grown; it was no illusion.

 

Over the years up to and beyond the old woman’s passing, the crucifix continued to grow until it reached a height of almost two metres and a width of nearly one-and-a- half metres. Pilgrims came from near and far to pray before the life-sized image of Christ on the Cross. So many came that the crucifix became damaged, and the governor ordered it to be burned twenty-seven years after its first appearance in the river. The fire was lit, but once the crucifix was placed amid the flames it was not consumed. Instead, the image of Jesus’ body began to sweat abundantly. It continued to sweat for two days thereafter, drawing even greater crowds of people, many of whom were sick but went forth completely cured.

 

The crucifix first floated down the Guadalajara River (Río Guadalajara, later Río Buga) and into the old Aboriginal woman’s hand in 1580. The governor of the region surrounding Popayán, which included the woman’s village and ranchland, ordered the crucifix to be burned in 1608. In 1819, the woman’s house was restored and made into a place for the ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims to meet and to pray. La Ermita, the church built to house the crucifix, fell into disrepair and became too small to accommodate the masses. Therefore, in 1875 the Archbishop of Popayán invited the Redemptorists to begin construction of a new shrine. The rose-couloured brick church received the Solemn Benediction of the then-Archbishop of Popayán, Msgr. Antonio Arboleda, on August 2, 1907, the Feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorist Order. A magnificent clock was imported from France and fitted to the bell tower in March, 1909. The home of the crucifix known since the nineteenth century as “El Señor de los Milagros” (“The Lord of Miracles”) and before then as “El Señor de las Aguas” (Lord of the Waters”) was given the title of Basilica, House of the King, by Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, in 1937. Today, the Basilica of Buga is one of the most-visited places of worship in Colombia.

 

Our Lord continues to work miracles for the faithful who journey to Buga or to countless other holy places the world over. Jesus works a miracle in the presence of believers every time the Mass is offered; He gives Himself to us in the celebration of the Eucharist whether in the great Basilica de Buga or in the most nondescript chapel.. Each time He renews His promise to us: “Amen, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by My heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)

 

St. Matthew’s Gospel in particular emphasizes the role of ‘God with us’. The “Emmanuel” born to us in a manger in Bethlehem is “with (us) always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 1:23, 28:20). God’s coming among us in the flesh is a miracle in which the Almighty has made himself visible to us in human form, yet whether or not we are able to see God physically, we are usually unsure of how to respond to such miraculous Divine intervention, much less how to define a ‘miracle’.

 

Dr. Donald McFarlan of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, identifies a miracle as an “object of wonder” and paraphrases St. Augustine’s description of a miracle as a “marvelous event exceeding the known powers of nature” that is “due to some special act of God.” (McFarlan, Concise Bible Dictionary, Article on ‘Miracle’. Glasgow: Blackie and Sons, 1982) Appropriately, Dr. McFarlan then turns to the books of the Holy Scriptures in their original languages in search of the meaning intended by the divinely-inspired Biblical writers.

 

In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word ‘oth’, translated into English as ‘sign’, is used to denote an event or series of events that defy natural explanation. However, the appearances of ‘oth’ are not meant to detail disconnected occurrences, but to convey high points in the relationship between God and His chosen people Israel. This God-human relationship lasts from our creation until the end of time and beyond. The concentration and intensity of miracle stories in the Old Testament increase in times of trial for the Israelites, especially during the exodus from Egypt. These tales, first passed on via oral tradition, were eventually written down to be even more effective instruments with which to teach future generations:

 

“Later on, when your son asks you what these ordinances, statutes, and decrees mean which the LORD, our God, has enjoined on you, you shall say to your son, ‘We were once slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with His strong hand and wrought before our eyes signs and wonders, great and dire, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and his whole house.” (Deuteronomy 6:20-22)

 

God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh Ramses II was a foreshadowing of His greatest ‘oth’, the Incarnation of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. As in the Hebrew Old Testament, St. John’s Gospel presents miracles as ‘signs’. John uses ‘semeion’, the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word ‘oth’, to describe seven of Jesus’ most important works: the changing of water into wine at Cana (cf. John 2:1-11; ‘semeion’ is first used in v. 11), the cure of the royal official’s son (cf. John 4:46-54), the healing of the paralytic at Bethesda (cf. John 5:1-18), His multiplication of the loaves (cf. John 6:1-15) and walking on water (cf. John 6:16-21), wherein the parting of the Red Sea and the Passover especially come to mind, the curing of the man born blind (cf. John 9:1-40), and lastly the raising of Lazarus (cf. John 11:1-44), a presage to Jesus’ own Resurrection.

 

St. John’s account of only seven of Jesus’ signs is not a limitation on the part of the Gospel writer, but perhaps more his emphasis on the universality of miraculous works. The number of miracles recorded in John’s Gospel- seven- signifies all-inclusiveness in the Bible. The Church herself is a miracle and owes her existence to the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ and to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Furthermore, the original conclusion of the Gospel of John prior to the later addition of Chapter 21, the Epilogue, likely by a different writer, summarizes excellently both the purpose of Jesus’ signs and that of the whole fourth Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [His] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in His name.” (John 20: 30-31)

 

The Synoptic Gospels also agree on miracles as one of Jesus’ means of showing His power to His followers so that they might believe in His Godhead. However, instead of using the Greek word ‘semeion’ as does St. John, Sts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke employ the Greek ‘dunamis’, which means great or mighty work. The literal translation of ‘dunamis’ into English results in words such as ‘dynamic’, ‘dynamism’, and ‘dynamo’. The Lucan Gospel presents the most important mysterious act of God’s dynamism, the Incarnation, most at length among the four Gospels. Luke’s beautiful and detailed infancy narrative includes Mary’s Magnificat, with her acknowledgement, “the Mighty One has done great [works] for me, and holy is His name.” (Luke 1:49)

 

Thus Mary, Jesus’ first disciple, recognized the miracle that she bore in her womb. That mighty work, the Christ, went on to perform many great deeds for those who were willing to follow Him. The most miracles in any single chapter of Luke’s Gospel- four- are recorded in Chapter 8. The stories of Jesus’ calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, His healings of the Gerasene demoniac and of Jairus’ daughter, and the raising of the daughter of the synagogue official occur in sequence immediately after the parables of the sower and of the lamp in the same chapter. As is the purpose of the parables, Jesus’ miracles are correctly understood only by those properly disposed toward faith. (cf. Luke 8:10)

 

Fear, though, often precedes faith as our response to God’s wonders, especially when we do not connect supernatural acts with their source, the One whose “footsteps [are] unseen.” (Psalm 77:20) Earlier in Psalm 77, Asaph writes of the Exodus: “The waters saw you, God,…and lashed about, trembled even to their depths.” (Psalm 77:17) Likewise, Jesus’ disciples were afraid of their own demise during the storm on the lake. (cf. Luke 8:23-24) Jesus, meanwhile, was peacefully asleep in the boat. The disciples, in a panic, awoke Him: “Master, Master, we are perishing!” (Luke 8:24) Upon awakening, Jesus first calmed the storm, and then asked His disciples, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25) The order of Jesus’ actions is important; He did not chide His disciples for their lack of faith before calming the tempest. Our Lord recognized His disciples’ natural human reaction to the threat of imminent and sudden death. The disciples’ response to the storm is as natural as our need to sleep. Jesus, fully human, knew that even as He slept while the disciples feared that they would die alone. The Master’s sleep was meant to prepare those in His presence for His death on the Cross. Jesus’ glorious victory over death itself would entail His suffering and dying alone. His disciples would all flee, and it would seem that even God the Father had abandoned Him. (cf. Matthew 27:55; Mark 15:34) Only after the Resurrection did the disciples no longer fear but understand and believe. (cf. Luke 24:13-49)

 

Before “opening [our] minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), Jesus allows us to experience fear, such that we tremble to our depths like the waters of the Red Sea. (cf. Psalm 77:17). Most if not all people experience fear, so to be afraid is not intrinsic evidence of wrongdoing. For many, fear is a necessary stage of our journey toward faith. Two forms of fear are presented in the Bible. The first is the kind of fear, similar to that of Jesus’ disciples prior to the calming of the storm, which we understand literally today, while the second is a response of awe and amazement at the greatness of God, such as that felt by the disciples after the sea was calmed.

 

The latter form of fear involves our lack of knowledge of who God is. The disciples asked, “Who then is this, who commands even the winds and the sea, and they obey Him?” (Luke 8:25) This question in response to Jesus’ power is entirely instinctive; most of us would behave the same way in a similar situation. Some people, though, never advance beyond fear in the sense in which it is understood contemporarily, and on toward faith. Philosophers including the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard have written that one cannot ever overcome the “fear and trembling” stage, which is not therefore something to be surpassed or suppressed, but is essentially human. (cf. Philippians 2:12, Psalm 2:11, and Isaiah 19:16; cf. also Kierkegaard, “With Fear and Trembling”) The Bible even lists fear of the Lord as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. (cf. Isaiah 11:2)

 

Nevertheless, Jesus’ calming of the storm on the lake only momentarily reassured His disciples, who again faced their fear of death when they encountered a possessed man on the opposite side of the lake. St. Luke describes the demoniac thus: “For a long time he had not worn clothes; he did not live in a house, but lived among the tombs.” (Luke 8:27) The setting of this story in all three Synoptic Gospels is near the Gentile town of Gerasa, or Gadara as in St. Matthew’s Gospel, which also includes two demoniacs instead of one. (cf. Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8:28-34) Gerasa was one of ten pagan cities southeast of the Sea of Galilee called the Decapolis. (cf. Mark 5:20) In such an environment, one can empathize with the disciples for feeling uneasy. In Gerasa, deep in pagan territory, a possessed man approached them. He was naked and had been in contact with the dead. Swine, which were forbidden by Jewish law to eat or to raise (cf. Leviticus 11:7-8, Deuteronomy 14:8), were feeding nearby. Most Jews would have remained as far away as possible from such an obvious risk of ritual uncleanliness, but Jesus led His followers into the midst of it. The disciples were understandably terrified. The evil spirits, though, were the most afraid; they were about to be destroyed by their Almighty and courageous foe, Jesus Christ, who called the demons out by name: “Legion.”(Luke 8:30) Our Lord single-handedly gained control over the numerous demons- a legion was equivalent to approximately 6 000 Roman foot soldiers- and sent them into the swine, who rushed off the cliff and were drowned in the lake. (Luke 8:32-33, and related notes, New American Bible). These demons were most fearful of Jesus because they knew Him best. They, too, called Him by name as they had in previous encounters between the Lord and other demoniacs: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” (Luke 8:28; cf. Luke 4:34, 41) However, this time the evil spirits who had “taken hold of [the man] many times” (Luke 8:29) were powerless against being cast into the swine and drowned in the lake, which in Luke’s Gospel is a symbol of “the abyss”, a word that is unique to Luke among the Gospels and signifies either the prison dwelling of Satan or the watery disorder prior to God’s creation of the universe in Genesis. (Luke 8:31 and related notes in R. Brown et al., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; also cf. Romans 10:7 and Genesis 1:2)

 

Following the exorcism, only Jesus and the cured man appeared calm. The Gerasene townspeople scattered, “seized with fear” (Luke 8:35, 37), and they asked Jesus to depart from them. The phrase used by St. Luke in verse 35 is similar to the words that the Gospel writer first employs in his description of the shepherds tending their sheep when Jesus was born: “The glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.” (Luke 2:9) Like the righteous and simple shepherds or the evil King Herod (cf. Matthew 2:3), we are also sometimes afraid of the meaning and the message of a baby wrapped in cloth in a manger, not to mention of a mighty exorcist. The former demoniac at Gerasa, though, sat calmly at Jesus’ feet in the traditional posture at the time of a disciple before his teacher. (cf. Luke 8:35 and notes, NAB) The man would have followed Jesus, but Our Lord had greater plans for him: He was to go out and to proclaim gratefully amongst his fellow Gerasenes “what Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:39)

 

Meanwhile, Jesus returned to Jewish territory and was immediately greeted by great crowds that “almost crushed Him.” (Luke 8:42) St. Peter, likely feeling claustrophobic and therefore growing impatient with the masses, stated the obvious, “Master, the crowds are pressing in upon you.” (Luke 8:45) Though Peter does not, in this passage, ask Jesus to dismiss the crowd, his later words especially reflect that he is tiring of the great number of people constantly surrounding the Lord and His Apostles (cf. Luke 9:12), and likewise of their own inability to find a secluded location appropriate for prayer. However, two people were able to reach Jesus from among the multitude, the synagogue official named Jairus and a woman afflicted with hemorrhages. Jairus fell at Jesus’ feet and pleaded with Him in desperation to save his only daughter from death. (cf. Luke 8:42) This scene is reminiscent of the raising of the widow’s only son at Nain (cf. Luke 7:11-17); Jesus is shown again by St. Luke to be particularly attentive to those whose only children require His presence.

 

As highlighted previously in Luke’s Gospel, this Evangelist is especially concerned about women. Like Jairus’ daughter, the person who had been bleeding continually “for twelve years” was female. (Luke 8:43) The two women also share the number twelve in common- the length of time the second woman had been hemorrhaging is equal to Jairus’ daughter’s age in years. (cf. Luke 8:42-43) Twelve in the Bible usually symbolizes completeness or wholeness. Furthermore, Luke presents these two interwoven miracle stories to illustrate God’s response to genuine faith when it overcomes fear, in this case either of ridicule or of the density of the crowds. (cf. Hahn and Mitch, Ignatius Study Bible, note on Luke 8:48, 50, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2616)

 

A striking recent example of the role of true faith in surpassing fear is that of the Franciscan Padre Pio, who died in 1968 and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Reportedly, those who came to Padre Pio to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation were reminded by their confessor of all the transgressions that they were too afraid to admit. Many people, including Padre Pio’s own father, went forth in tears after being absolved of their sins. They had come into the confessional obsessed with the shame of sin and thus lacking faith and confidence in God. Following absolution by Padre Pio, penitents went forth crying tears of joy, liberated by the deep and powerful mercy of the Lord of which a holy yet humble Italian priest was an ideal instrument.

 

Whether through His disciples, through the Church, or alone, Jesus works miracles for those who believe in Him or who are willing to have their faith increased radically. From within the crowds, a woman who had been suffering from a flow of blood for twelve years approached Jesus and touched the tassel of His cloak. The tassels worn on men’s cloaks in Jesus’ time represented adherence to Jewish law. (cf. Matthew 23:5, Numbers 15:38-39, Deuteronomy 22:12) The woman risked not only making her own ritual impurity widely known, but also passing on her uncleanliness to Jesus through physical contact with Him. (cf. Leviticus 15:19-30). When, as St. Luke writes, “all were denying [having touched Jesus’ cloak]” (Luke 8:45), Christ encouraged the woman to come forward and to explain “in the presence of all the people why she had touched Him and how she had been healed immediately.” (Luke 8:47) Thus, Jesus’ miraculous works were revealed to a large number of people, just as they had been proclaimed in the Decapolis by the Gerasene man who had been freed of His demons.

 

While Our Lord was still teaching the crowds about the value of faith in understanding miracles, saying to the woman whom he had cured of her hemorrhaging, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 8:48), a member of Jairus’ household suddenly interrupted Him with the news that the synagogue official’s child had died. Jesus responded with the same message that followed His earlier miracles: “Do not be afraid, just have faith and she will be saved.” (Luke 8:50) Only the Lord’s closest friends, the Apostles Peter, John, and James, accompanied Him to Jairus’ house, wherein the girl had indeed died. There, Jesus had a special message for a select group of people; the larger crowds would not yet have understood its significance, and even those gathered were later instructed “to tell no one what had happened.” (Luke 8:56) Jesus showed Peter, John, James, and the girl’s parents that, as fear gives way to faith, one is capable of greater and more generous acts of service in God’s name. The raising of Jairus’ daughter resulted from the persistence of her family, which believed despite an incomplete comprehension of Jesus’ works and overall mission. In their lack of understanding, they ridiculed Jesus when He said to them, “Do not weep any longer, for she is not dead, but sleeping.” (Luke 8:52) Jesus would again be mocked as he hung on the Cross (cf. Luke 23:35-38), changing our death from sin into a temporary state to be conquered by His death and Resurrection.

 

Fear, then, must be surpassed by faith through which good works are performed by the grace of God, who is with us and within us. Jesus commands us to share in His miraculous ministry. He says: “Amen, amen, whoever believes in Me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these. And whatever you ask in My name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:12)

 

Lord of Miracles, strengthen our faith that we may work fearlessly according to Your example. You teach us, as in the story of the old woman in Buga, that the smallest acts of kindness are often miracles to those in need, like the debtor on his way to prison. Lord of the Waters, calm all our unnecessary anxiety. Lord over evil, sickness, and death, You call to us as You did to Jairus’ daughter, “Child, arise!” You give us the gift of Yourself as food in the Holy Eucharist, just as you commanded the girl’s parents to give her “something to eat.” (Luke 8:54-55) Dwell within us and, as we share in Your Passion, may You also grant us a share in Your Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Saviour, who lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

 

WRS

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  1. Another Side of Buga, Colombia. A City Rich with Culture and Adventure | Humming's from Paradise - January 27, 2015

    […] Footnote (1) A Canadian Catholic Perspective […]

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