Our Lord’s ministry of healing

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Calx Mariae, on the theme of “the Church and medicine”.

Among the best-known and best-loved stories of Christ’s earthly ministry are those of His healing the sick. In these stories we hear the voices of these who met Him: their desperation, their faith, and their weaknesses. They are easy for us to identify with. They were among Jesus’ first followers, and they model for us the ordinary faithful: not the inner circle of apostles and disciples, but those who simply heard the Word, and believed. They came to Him with their problems, and He helped them.

Why, we might ask, is there such an emphasis in the Gospels on healing the sick? The miracles demonstrate the divine favour Christ enjoyed, and even His divine power: unlike the prophets of the Old Testament, and the apostles in Acts, it is clear that Our Lord cures by His own initiative — at will and not as a mere instrument of God. However, this could also be, and also was, shown by His other miracles: calming the storm, multiplying the loaves and fishes, and even things like knowing men’s thoughts, knowing where Peter could catch a shoal of fish, and escaping from an angry mob.

The cures have a special importance, nevertheless, because they are symbolic expressions of the core purpose of His mission: to save souls. The conversion of Zacchaeus the tax-collector (Luke 19:1–10), perhaps the most dramatic conversion in the Gospels, is nevertheless, in itself, hidden: people could not see the state of Zacchaeus’ soul, and they were at first doubtful about it (Luke 19:7). It is then manifested by his actions of repentance, of course, but by its nature, a change in a soul is above all interior. 

The healing of the body, by contrast, is very often visible: the deaf hear and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the paralysed rise from the beds, the dead return to their loved ones alive. These things frequently happen, in the Gospels, in the open, with a crowd looking on: in front of the funeral party of the son of the widow of Naim, for example. 

This incidentally shows the absurdity of the idea that these stories should be understood as non-miraculous. Someone in a coma might be thought to be dead; some forms of skin-disease may be amenable to cure by hypnotic suggestion; but Jesus would have had to try to rouse thousands of corpses and cure heaven knows how many lepers before He could find one who would respond to His word of command, if this was operating simply as a natural cause. He would have been regarded as a laughing stock, not a thaumaturge.

In any case, the cure of those sick in body serves as an apt symbol of the cure of those sick in soul. The conversion of sinners is an interior action of grace; the healing of the physically sick is a divine intervention of a visible kind. Both kinds of malady are connected with sin and the power of the devil. Jesus healed a woman who was “bent over”, and describes her as having been “bound by Satan” (Luke 13:15), and yet the cure was not an exorcism. He did not command the spirit to depart, but laid His hands on her (Luke 13:13). To say she had been “bound by Satan” is not to put her in the category of the demoniac, but is a way of pointing out that her infirmity, like all physical infirmities, is a sign of the reign of Satan over the natural world, including the human body. Jesus came to liberate her from the bonds of Satan, and this sign of giving her new life was for that reason acceptable as a Sabbath work: saving life is always legitimate on a Sabbath.

Illness being a consequence of sin does not imply that the more ill we are physically, the worse sinners we are. Jesus explains that God’s justice does not work like that. God permits the consequences of Original Sin as they manifest themselves in illness, as He often permits the consequences of human sin, for His own purposes: in short, for His own glory (John 9:3). We cannot expect, for the most part, to understand why this is so, but one reason is that, in a world in which Satan is in power, it is both natural and necessary that the consequences be visible. We need to see the brokenness of the human condition. 

The miraculous restoration of the health of the body is a symbol, we might say an acted parable, of the restoration of the health of the soul, and the latter is a more impressive work of God. In a healing, God does something which in principle could be done by natural causes; in a “miracle of grace”, the reconciliation of a human soul to Himself, He does something which no natural cause can achieve. Christ’s demonstration of divine power in visible healings is a hint or a promise that He can do something still greater, in the invisible healing of the soul.

The role of the Gospel miracles as demonstrations of Christ’s divine power explains why miracles in the Church in later ages are more like those described in the Old Testament. They are less frequent, and come not from the miracle-worker using his own power, but by his begging God’s intervention. It is a great pity when people writing about the saints exclude their miracles. It shows a ridiculous pre-judging of the historical evidence; it renders incomprehensible the popular reaction to some of the saints (people do not clamour for miracles from those who do not have a reputation for performing them); and for many of the saints, miracles were an important part of their work. It can also give the impression that God withdrew His favour from the Church at some odd moment in history, and stopped granting miracles: although apparently people at the time did not notice.

What I have said has an important implication for the natural art of healing: the practice of medicine. Disease and injury are consequences of Original Sin, and they are signs of the still active power of Satan over the world, a world which, even after Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, remains a battleground between good and evil. God continues to permit disease, even as it affects the saints, for complex reasons which we will often not understand, just as He permits other evils. This does not mean He does not wish us to combat them: in allowing evils, He allows, for good reasons, what He hates. When a doctor restores health to a patient, when a judge restores justice to a victim of crime by punishing a criminal, or when a parent restores order and beauty to a home after it has been reduced to chaos by small children, Satan’s kingdom has been, in a small way, beaten back. 

In our work in the vineyard of the Lord, we are generally expected to use natural means to our ends, not miracles. Through these natural means, we must glorify God and serve our fellow men. Medicine is among the most noble purely natural arts by which God’s will can be done on earth, until that time when the universe is perfectly conformed to His will, when “every tear shall be wiped away” (Apoc 21:4).

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