Signs, Wonders and Wonder Workers

A FEW WEEKS AGO our Saturday Gospel reading from Luke 10 told how the Lord Jesus sent out His disciples to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand. On the tenth Saturday of the Cycle of St Luke we continue our reading of this chapter with the disciples’ return: “Then the seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name’” (Luke 10:17).

The disciples are elated at the spiritual power accompanying the proclamation of God’s kingdom. The Lord acknowledges that power: “Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (v. 19). 

The disciples do not attribute this power to themselves but to the name of the Lord. Nonetheless Jesus tempers their enthusiasm, because success in proclaiming the Gospel, like any achievement in life, can lead us down the road to feelings of pride and superiority. ‘After all, the demons are listening to Me!” Instead, He tells them, “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (v.20).

The image of the “book of life” is used in Scripture to describe the indescribable: that we are called to the eternal life of communion with God, a relationship with the Lord of Sabaoth, because of Jesus Christ. “Those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27) achieve the ultimate fulfillment of their humanity: living forever as the image of God we were meant to be from the beginning. “It has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

Whenever the Church receives a new catechumen into its fold, it prays, “Inscribe him/her in Your Book of Life, and unite him/her to the flock of Your inheritance.” Entering the Church is, thus, an icon of entering the eternal kingdom.

What About “Signs and Wonders”?

The Lord promised that signs and wonders would accompany the proclamation of the Gospel. We read at the end of Mark’s Gospel, “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17,18).

The Acts of the Apostles and the other New Testament books give us glimpses of these signs and wonders at work in the apostolic era beginning at Pentecost. Through the centuries that followed, the historic Churches have accepted the real possibility of signs and wonders as affirmations of God’s active presence in the world. At the same time, they are reluctant to put much emphasis upon specific events or claim they are “miraculous.” Some signs are real, but some are not what they claim to be. Some are fraudulent while others appear to be miraculous only because we do not understand the natural forces at work in them. Finally, some may have demonic origins. As the Lord said, “false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24).

In any case, as the Lord said repeatedly, God has much more in store for His people than signs and wonders. When Jewish elders demanded a sign from Jesus like the manna at the exodus He responded, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6:49-51). We rely on Christ, who offered Himself for the life of the world, rather than on real or apparent wonders.

Wonders Celebrated in Our Church

When people think of wonders they often focus on physical healings. These have been many, but there are also remarkable historic events which are celebrated in the life of the Church: extraordinary phenomena that the human mind could not comprehend or explain which deserve our attention. Perhaps the best known is the dream or vision of Constantine the Great as he fought for control of the Roman Empire. As reported even by pagan writers of the age, Constantine was led to inscribe the monogram of Christ on the shields of his soldiers; an act to which he attributed his victory. Over the next decade he would begin to remake the Empire as a Christian commonwealth as a result of this experience. As we pray on his feast, “You gave a most mighty weapon to our emperor: Your precious Cross, by which he governed all the earth in righteousness, shining forth in piety, and has been granted the kingdom of heaven in Your loving-kindness. With him we glorify Your loving dispensation, Almighty Jesus, the Savior of our souls.”

The cross is the focus of another event celebrated on our calendar which took place on the morning of May 7, 351. A cross formed by stars and visible in daylight was seen above Jerusalem, stretching about two miles, from Golgotha to the Mount of Olives. It remained visible for several hours. St Cyril of Jerusalem described it in a letter to the Emperor Constantius: “This was not, as may be thought, a momentary passing phenomenon: for it continued several hours visible to our eyes, and brighter than the sun, the light of which would have eclipsed it, had not this been stronger. The whole city, struck with a reverential fear tempered with joy, ran immediately to the church, young and old, Christians and heathens, citizens and strangers, all with one voice giving praise to our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, the worker of miracles; finding by experience the truth of the Christian doctrine, to which Heaven bears witness.” This event is commemorated in our liturgy on May 7 every year.

Wonderworking Saints

Christ’s promise of extraordinary signs has been fulfilled in the saints throughout the ages. These wonders have included healings, gifts of knowledge (where the saints have described people and places they had never known in their ordinary life), and mystic appearances while alive or after death.

The Byzantine Churches revere a number of saints as “Wonderworkers,” the most prominent among them being the unmercenary physicians Cosmas and Damian, Nicholas of Myra and Spyridon of Cyprus.

Within the past century a number of wonderworkers have been recognized in the various historic Churches such as Pope St Cyril VI (Coptic), St Sharbel (Maronite), Sts Paisios and Porphyrios (Greek) and St Pius of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio, Roman), One recent example concerns this latter saint, Padre Pio. During World War II, when the Allies were preparing to bomb the town of San Giovanni Rotondo, a brown-robed friar appeared in the sky and kept the planes from dropping their bombs. One of the pilots later visited the friary and identified Padre Pio as the one he had seen in the sky.

Signs and wonders have been recorded in connection with icons or relics of saints. Others claim to have seen apparitions of Christ, the Theotokos or the saints. Some of these claims are spurious, but others have the ring of authenticity. In any case, signs and wonders may support our faith but they are never the basis for our belief: that is Christ, who alone is the Lover of Mankind.