Stephen Wilson concludes his series on the Divine
Priest-poet Gerald Manley Hopkins (d.1889) readily acknowledged his indebtedness to St Augustine. In God’s Grandeur he evokes a world ‘charged with the grandeur of God’.
Now, since the Fall from grace; it ‘…wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell’ – symbolized in the poem by the 19th-century industrial and economic landscape, ‘…seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil’.
…for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
For Manley Hopkins, as for Augustine, miracles belong within a creation already saturated with sacramental meaning. The second part of this essay (September’s ND) sought to contrast this profoundly Biblical Augustinian vision with the sceptics’ caricature of a two-tier model of natural and divine causation, which finds its straw man in late-modern Christian fundamentalism but also (and perhaps more worrying) in the Vatican’s vetting procedure for miracles, at least as usually reported.
The ‘How’ of Miracles
The second part also described the Gospels’ emphasis on the sign-bearing character of ‘mighty acts’ or ‘acts of power’ as they appear in Jesus’ ministry. Nevertheless: If the world as a whole is a kind of miracle – everywhere ‘charged with the grandeur of God’ – how might certain events stand out as especially miraculous within the everyday warp and woof of natural processes?
This is really three questions rolled into one: 1) Is the divine agency of miracle – its ontological grounding – in a category apart from all others? 2) How do miracles nevertheless fit in somehow with a God-given orderliness in nature? 3) What of the Paschal mystery of the Lord’s resurrection – the ‘greatest miracle of all’ – and its counterpart and context, the Incarnation? And beyond these questions lies that of miracles’ credibility.
For St Augustine the answer to questions 1) and 2) lies with our fallen knowledge of things. In our blindness we may need to be moved to reverence by unusual events which make latent divine power manifest. Though they may go beyond the normal run of things, they do so as markers of hitherto concealed glory, and signs of nature’s divinely graced capacity to bring to birth a renewed creation.
Parable & Sacrament
The first part of this series had mentioned Aquinas’ argument, invoking scripture and the Fathers, that ‘divine speech’ – discourse about divine things – must fail us, yet may somehow allow us to speak truly of God, to describe divine mystery without explaining it.
Yet with such discourse a negative is never a simple directive to be silent, but more an invitation to attend closely to what can be said. For example, we may yet deepen our understanding the place of miracles in Jesus’ ministry through comparison with other kinds of divine disclosure, for example Jesus’ parables on the one hand, and sacraments on the other.
Words and Deeds
The second part of this series noted Jesus’ answer in Luke 11:1-9 to accusations about casting out demons, and his saying to the Baptist’s disciples in Matt.11:5 that “the poor have the good news preached to them”, which concludes a longer rejoinder (Matt.11:2ff) bearing witness to the power of miracles to attest to the coming of the kingdom. Jesus places his teaching as a ‘work’ and a ‘sign’ alongside his miracles. His words are also deeds, which would suggest that we attend to their ‘performative’ aspect.
Parable has been called an ‘open textured’ concept, resistant to any single unifying definition, and with no typical example of which we could say, “all parables are like this”. They vary across, for example, instances of allegory (such as the Sower and the Soils), of apocalyptic (the Sheep and the Goats), and straightforward simile – as in many of the ‘parables of the Kingdom’ – the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the guests at a marriage feast, the labourers in the vineyard, the lost sheep/coin, and so on.
A feature of most parables, however, is their striking everydayness, evoking vignettes of everyday life, and relatively free of the numinous quality we sometimes associate with great liturgical texts, for example.
And here, surely, we have an almost immediate analogy with Jesus’ miracles. There is little trace in the Gospels’ presentation of them of any element of the liminal, the weird or the uncanny – except, perhaps, in the case of the raising of Lazarus. The only liminal or threshold aspect here might be the dawning sense in witnesses’ hearts and minds of a future-yet-already-present kingdom. (But how, then, are we to treat the unmistakeably liminal cases of Jesus’ conception and resurrection?)
A second common feature to consider is the powerful, mysterious and disturbing role of parables and miracles alike in Jesus’ ministry, and their potentially divisive impact.
We are reminded of the close connection between Jesus’ use of parables in his teaching and those aspects of his behaviour – above all towards the poor and outcast – which tended to arouse scandal and perplexity, sometimes even amongst his closest disciples, yet also deep gratitude in many others. The parables are not edifying fables aimed at the hearers’ moral improvement.
In the parable of the prodigal son, for example, the unanswered questions that remain at the end of the story are surely meant to make us realise that the story’s (so to say) incompleteness suggests a dialectic of engagement on the hearers’ part; it is not meant for our spiritual uplift but to leave us deeply disturbed by what it says.
Our sheer familiarity with Jesus’ teachings together with their naturalism may blunt our awareness of this second feature, the element of challenge and interrogation. Yet it may be precisely through these two contrasting qualities of familiarity and challenge that we may find intimations of the transcendent which disturb and dislocate our settled ways of conceiving its entry into our experience –when we would far rather wish to isolate the sacred from life as a whole, to be treated as somehow an object of special experience.
Signs of Contradiction
This leads us to a third feature common to parable and miracle alike: as signifiers – embedded in Jesus’ proclamation of a future kingdom that is already dawning. Jesus’ mighty works figure in the Synoptic Gospels as tokens of this future kingdom which is even now at work, and John’s Gospel treats them as signs of a divine glory still to come yet also already present.
It is precisely here that there is a pinch-point – an ever-present possibility of failure and of rejection. In the Gospel record it proves to be so with Jesus’ ministry as a whole – words and works alike – in a trajectory that in the end will lead him to the Cross.
All of this may be part of what lies behind Jesus’ perplexing comment to his closest disciples in Mark 4:11f: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven”. We may, though, find it hard to grasp the full import of these words of Jesus, even when we try to set them against their background in Isaiah 6:9f, and the vicissitudes of prophetic success and failure evoked there.
hereas Jesus’ parables, as with his teachings taken as a whole, are in one way or another intended to challenge minds and hearts, the Gospels tend to treat his miracles as a thing apart, springing from his compassion, and remote from any intention to sway an audience. Yet the Gospel witness taken as a whole is somewhat equivocal; compare the instances in the synoptics where he enjoins silence – on lepers he has cured, for example – against the numerous instances where his healing on the sabbath provokes confrontation, and the claim in John that at least certain of his works are to be taken as signs – by the reader if not always by immediate bystanders.
There is an instructive analogy to be drawn here with sacraments – John Wesley’s ‘converting ordinances’. As with parable and miracle, their vehicles are everyday materials: water, bread, wine, oil, the laying on of hands, a spoken promise or a word of reconciliation and forgiveness. Like both, they are intended as effectual signs, conveying something of what they signify, wherever these are received in faith. And their effect may be nullified where faith is lacking. There always remains the possibility of rejection, of failure.
The concept of sacrament also possesses an open texture analogous to that of parable. This might be a possible source, perhaps, of some of the disputes (at least in the western tradition) about the nature and number of the sacraments – and not only in post-Reformation times. Perhaps too often this has been at the cost of neglecting the ontological priority of the ‘first sacrament’ – the humanity of Jesus, ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15), and by implication the second great sacrament, the Church as Christ’s Body, ‘the sacrament of union with God and of the unity of mankind’ (Lumen Gentium, 1). And there is, too, the great Biblical theme of creation in its sacramental aspect (as we would now understand it) echoed in Manley Hopkins’ poem.
Miracle, Sacrament & ‘Open Texture’
Commentators on the gospels have differed amongst themselves as how best to classify the miracles of Jesus, and in their assessment of the degree of ‘historical residue’ to be found in the Gospel record. Here again we encounter an openness of texture – a resistance to easy classification across such a wide variety of types, from the so-called ‘nature’ miracles (e.g. the stilling of the storm, the feeding of the multitudes and the draught of fishes), to resuscitations from apparent death, and the many instances of healing and deliverance from evil powers.
As in parable and sacrament, so too in the miracles: glory and kingdom are disclosed and made present through their power to induce faith and conversion of life. And as with sacraments, so with parables and miracles alike: as effectual signs they participate in what they signify of nature’s divinely graced capacity to bring to birth a renewed creation.
What, then, of the greatest ‘mighty work’ of all, the Paschal mystery – with its counterpart and context, the Incarnation? What happens to the naturalism of miracle in such a case, or its fittingness within creation? And what could be more liminal – more freighted with the numinous – than a virginal conception, or the encounters with the risen Lord which conclude the Gospel narratives, and at a pivotal point in the Acts of the Apostles (9:3ff) with Saul’s encounter on the Damascus road?
Here if anywhere we surely find ourselves confronted with disturbing ‘intimations of the transcendent’ that will dislocate settled conceptions of it. And how far does talk of incompleteness and a ‘dialectic of engagement’ find resonance with what we would say of Incarnation and the Paschal mystery?
We may find ourselves arriving at the conclusion that, far from being any kind of special case of the miraculous, Paschal mystery and Incarnation together constitute a paradigm shift in our understanding of the things of God, requiring of us new ways of framing the question mentioned earlier: ‘What reasons are there to believe in the miraculous?’
Fr Stephen Wilson SSC is an assistant priest at
St Stephen’s Lewisham.