Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
One of the many Old Testament foreshadows of the New Testament is found in Exodus 15:26:
If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in His eyes, and give heed to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you which I put upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD, your healer.
God’s self-revelation as “healer” comes to fruition in the many ways that Jesus acts as healer during his ministry. His works of healing are not mere cures, still less are they magic tricks done merely to impress. Rather, they are signs. They signify and point to the central truth about who Jesus is and what he has come to do. The gospels are written, in part, to show us this. But they do it in a very subtle way, as is the custom with Jewish catechesis.
Consider, for instance, how Matthew uses his stories of Jesus’ healing. Matthew is divided into five books (like the five books of Moses) bracketed on either end by a prologue consisting of the infancy narrative and by an epilogue consisting of the passion narrative. Each book within Matthew is divided into a narrative and a discourse section. The Sermon on the Mount is the discourse section of Book I. It lays out for us the new law of the new covenant, just as Moses went up on the mountain and laid out the old law of the old covenant. In a word, Jesus, the son of King David, promulgates the new law of the new kingdom. Now, with the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew opens the narrative section of book II in order to show us the power of that kingdom. For it is one thing to give us the law, but it’s another thing to give us the power we are going to need to keep that law.
Therefore, the narrative section of Book II (Matthew chapters 8 and 9) assembles ten miracle stories from Jesus’ Galilean ministry. These miracle stories showcase Jesus’ power. He displays power over sickness (Matthew 8:1-17). But the stories remind us that sickness is part and parcel of a much wider disorder and damage to the natural order. So Matthew also shows Jesus displaying power over disordered and chaotic nature by calming the storm (Matthew 8:23-27; 9:27-31). Further, there is a root power behind sickness and damage to the natural order: the devil. Therefore Jesus’ power over demons is also described (Matthew 8:28-32; 9:32-34). And finally, Matthew shows Jesus in the ultimate act of conquest over sickness, disordered nature, and demonic: his defeat of death itself (Matthew 9:18-26). In short, Jesus’ authority is demonstrated not merely because he speaks with authority, but because he acts with divine power—a power he means to share with his Church.
It is notable that the very first miracle of healing recorded by Matthew is that of a leper. What is even more notable is the method Jesus chose to perform this miracle. He could have said, “Be healed!” and that would have been enough (as he showed when he healed the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13)). But instead Jesus does something very deliberate and significant: he touches the leper (Matthew 8:3).
Now under the old covenant, such an action was regarded as defiling. Touching a leper meant you were ritually defiled and could not go up to the Temple to worship. It meant you had to go through a whole week of purification. Uncleanness, sin, and defilement were understood to be more powerful influences than cleanness, sanctity, and purity. In the old covenant, sin was the superior power. When someone afflicted with some ritual uncleanness that symbolizes sin touched someone who was clean, the “flow” of power went in one direction only: the clean person was defiled but the unclean person was not sanctified.
However, when Jesus touched the leper something astounding happened: the leper became clean and Jesus was not defiled. The flow of power was, for the first time, reversed.
But not everyone can see this. For the Pharisees have learned the right lesson but drawn the wrong conclusion from the law of Moses. Under the old law, ritual defilement was intended as a kind of sign or shadow. It was meant to show us in our pride that we could not, by our own strength and power, keep ourselves clean from sin. The power of sin is greater than our power of sanctity. So the Pharisees understand sanctity in only one way: separation. Indeed, the word “Pharisee” comes from the Hebrew term meaning “separate”. They reasoned that if the power of sin is greater than our power of sanctity then the solution was to separate themselves from all that was unclean and even all that had touched what was unclean. In short, they apply to their personal lives a ritual code that was originally intended only for the Temple. They attempt to keep themselves as pure as the priests serving in the Temple. And so they separate themselves from the Gentiles, from touching the dead and dying, from lepers, and from menstruating women. They are right to see in these ritual prohibitions an image or sign of lifelessness. But they are wrong to conclude that by separating themselves they can avoid the sin which ritual uncleanness signifies. And so in an ironic way, they take the mirror of ritual uncleanness that God has given them in the Mosaic Law, and instead of seeing in it an image of their own uncleanness and defilement by sin, the turn it around and say to those around them, “See how unclean you are!”
Naturally then, when Jesus appears on the scene, they simply do not know what to do with him and are motivated by their pride to misunderstand him. Jesus, in Matthew 8, turns the Pharisaic understanding of the law on its head. He touches lepers and they are healed (Matthew 8:1 4), receives Gentiles and they receive faith (Matthew 8:5-13), consorts with demon-possessed people in a cemetery and they are restored (Matthew 8:28-31), and, in the next chapter, permits the touch of a menstruating woman and she’s healed (Matthew 9:18-22), touches the dead and she is raised (Matthew 9:25), and eats with tax collectors and sinners and makes them saints (Matthew 9:9-13). Yet, in all this, they see only the ritual defilement, not the revolutionary reversal in the flow of power. For, as Jesus points out elsewhere, pride has blinded them (John 9:35-41). They are so certain they are clean they cannot say, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” And so they miss the crucial lesson that the time for separation is past. In Israel’s childhood, separation from uncleanness and sin was necessary just as it is necessary for us to keep our children from “bad influences” lest they become imitators. But with the dawn of the power of the Kingdom of Heaven, it is the bad influences that are to be conquered with good ones, sin that is to be conquered with virtue, and death that is to be conquered with life.
This power to conquer sickness, sin, death, and hell is what Jesus continues to pour out and signify for us in what are known as the “sacraments of healing”: namely, the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick.
Some people find it puzzling that there should be any need for sacraments of healing. Sure, there’s a need for healing the body and doctors are good at that. But why a sacrament? Isn’t belief in Jesus supposed to confer the Holy Spirit? And isn’t He God? And isn’t His life indestructible? So how can there be a need for spiritual healing once you’ve received Jesus and have Him living within you? The basic answer of the Church is that Baptism is grace, not magic. We can (and do) experience injury of body, soul, and spirit due to the ways of the world, the struggles of the flesh, and the sins of others—and ourselves. Baptism is like being born. But it’s not enough to just be born. You have to eat (which is why there is Eucharist) and you have to grow (which is why we have Confirmation and practice the virtues to build up our muscles). And when you get sick in spirit because of your sins or sick in body because you are a child of Adam, you need healing that touches your whole being and isn’t just skin deep. So we celebrate the sacraments of healing. They’re given to make us whole!
That said, will take the next little while to continue our look at the meaning and power of the sacraments by turning our attention to the sacrament of healing known as Reconciliation. After that, we will continue on to a look at the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Stay tuned!