Part 1: Is It for Real?

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 4, 2014)
The following is the first in a five-part weekly series:

As Catholic Christians, we take it for granted that Lord God, the Creator of heaven and earth, wants to heal the sick and the suffering. In fact, care for the sick and prayer for their healing has been a part of the life of the Christian Church from the very beginning.

For example, on the pages of this website, we can read about the regular Healing Masses at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass., and about miracles of healing through St. Faustina's intercession, such as the famous and well-documented cures of Maureen Digan and Fr. Ron Pytel. Most Catholics today seem to have little doubt that healing both through medicine and through prayer in the Holy Spirit remains a vital part of the life of the Body of Christ.

It may come as a bit of a surprise to us to learn, however, that this emphasis on helping people "get well" is something rather rare in human history. Even some Christian groups, while accepting the use of modern medicine, have cast a lot of doubt on the practice of healing prayer.

Ancient Greece may have given us the doctor's "Hippocratic Oath," but the healing arts were a relatively minor aspect of Hellenistic society. The Greco-Roman world generally looked upon disease as an affliction sent from the gods, and for the most part they considered the sick as unlucky, tainted individuals to be shunned and avoided. There was a god of healing in Greek mythology — the god Aesculapius — whose temples dotted the landscape, but he was a relatively minor god in the overall religious culture. His power was believed to be subject to the higher authority of the other Olympians, such as Zeus, Athena, and Apollo, who often capriciously afflicted human beings with illness and disease.

The ancient Hindus also did little to promote healing. Sickness and misfortune often were seen as necessitated by the cosmic process of "karma" — and those who were ill were held to be working off their "bad karma," so to speak.

Even the ancient Jews tended to be of two minds about the work of physicians and about prayer for healing. According to the ancient rabbis (as expressed in the Mishnah and the Talmud), sin is the root cause of illness, and sickness is simply divine punishment for people's sins. Of course, there was another strand of belief about healing tucked away in the Old Testament, a strand that was often overlooked. The prophets Elijah and Elisha heal children by prayer out of compassion, by the power of Yahweh, and Elisha was instrumental in the cleansing of Namaan, the Syrian of leprosy. In the book of Tobit, the angel Raphael heals a man of blindness and defeats a demon, and in Psalm 103 the Lord God is praised because, among other things, "He forgives all your sins, and heals all your diseases." Still, as a whole, these are relatively marginal comments in the Old Testament. It was not until the book of Sirach (ca. 160 B.C.) that we finally find positive teaching about the role of physicians among the People of God (more about that later).

When we turn to the New Testament, however, it seems as if we enter a different world. According to Luke 9:11, wherever Jesus of Nazareth went, He "talked to [the people] about the Kingdom of God and He cured those who were in need of healing." As Morton Kelsey pointed out in his classic work, Healing and Christianity:

Nearly one-fifth of the entire [text of the] gospels is devoted to Jesus' healing [ministry] and the discussions occasioned by it. ... Forty-one distinct instances of physical and mental healing are recorded in the four gospels. ... It is also clear that Jesus sent out his disciples to continue this basic ministry (Mk 6:7-13; Mt 10:5-10; Lk 9:1-6).

Let's look at a couple of examples of Christ's exhortations to His apostles. In Luke 9:1-2, we are told: "[Jesus] called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all devils and to cure diseases, and He sent them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God." Again, according to Luke 10:8-9, Jesus said to the 70 disciples He was sending out: "Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you; and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'"

Some historians today question whether Jesus really performed miracles of healing during His lifetime on earth. After all, maybe the stories in the New Testament about His miraculous healing powers are nothing but ancient myths and legends. However, as a teacher of the New Testament with a degree in history, I personally had the chance to do in-depth research on this question, and the conclusion I came to was that the evidence for the healing miracles of Jesus is simply overwhelming. As a matter of fact, healing powers were not attributed to most of the great religious figures of the ancient world (for example, none by John the Baptist or Mohammed). Moreover, the nature of Christ's healing ministry requires us to treat it with historical respect: Unlike the Old Testament prophets and the charismatic rabbis, Jesus did not cure the sick and the suffering by means of prayer to God, but by His own touch and/or an authoritative command: "Be clean!" and "Rise, take up your palette and walk!" There is no parallel to this anywhere in antiquity. Besides, there is plenty of evidence that even our Lord's Jewish opponents admitted the pure fact that Jesus performed miracles. But they simply attributed these miracles to the power of Satan rather than to the power of God.

The real question, therefore, is not "Did Jesus of Nazareth heal people with supernatural power?" Of course, He did! Rather, the real questions are: Why did He do so? What was the purpose of this extraordinary and unprecedented aspect of His earthly ministry?

On the one hand, Jesus clearly intended His miracles as signs to show that He was the Messiah, anointed with power from the Most High to bring about the dawning of God's Kingdom in this world. For example, at the start of His ministry in Galilee, Jesus read a prophecy aloud in the synagogue in Nazareth about the Messiah, and He applied it to Himself: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor ... recovery of sight to the blind ... to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Lk 4:16-22). Later in His ministry, when the emissaries of John the Baptist asked Him, "Are you the One who is to come [that is, the Messiah], or shall we look for another?" Jesus replied: "Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind see again, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the Good News is proclaimed to the poor, and happy is the man who does not lose faith in Me" (Lk 7: 20-23).

On the other hand, the healing miracles of Jesus were not just meant to be "proof" of His divine, messianic authority; they were meant to be clear demonstrations of His work of salvation. In other words, the visible sign that God's plan of salvation through Him was underway was that people were actually saved from all that oppresses and afflicts them, including their illnesses. So Jesus preached salvation and healing by actually healing people: showing to the sick and afflicted the love of His heavenly Father, and showing to everyone that His Father's Kingdom was beginning to break into the world through His ministry.

Jesus often healed the sick merely by the touch of His hand, often coupled with a word or command: To the dead child He brought back to life, He said "Little girl, I say to you, arise!" (Mk 5:41). These physical methods served as channels of His compassionate love and the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, Jesus did not offer this flow of healing love as merely a one-sided act of mercy. Indeed, to be effective, these miracles needed to be welcomed and received by the sick individual. So Jesus drew upon the faith of the sick person or of those around Him to "open the door," so to speak, to His supernatural healing power.

At the same time, Jesus showed no aversion to natural medicine. He spoke of doctors quite positively when He compared those in good health who have no need of a physician with those who are sick who do need one (see Mt 9:12; Mk 2:17; and Lk 5:31).

In short, Jesus' ministry of healing by the power of the Holy Spirit showed to God's people that their heavenly Father is truly a God of love and compassion and that His Kingdom coming, "on earth as it is in heaven," includes their liberation from every human misery, including disease and sickness.

This is surely what all Catholics want to believe today as well — that Jesus continues to heal the sick, through both natural and supernatural means, and to show us His love in this down-to-earth, personal and tangible way. Sometimes He may heal us through the providential use of just the right medicines, sometimes through prayer in the Holy Spirit, sometimes through the sacraments, and sometimes even through the special relics and intercessions of His saints.

And yet we also know that many people — even many people of faith — do not seem to find healing today (or at least, they are not healed in ways for which they ask or expect). There is a deep mystery here. How can we understand this? Are we, as Christians, somehow blocking Jesus from pouring out the fullness of His supernatural healing love on His suffering people? Granted that healing by the power of the Holy Spirit was for real in the life of Jesus, but is it still for real today?

Read the series in full:
• Part 1: Is It for Real?

Part 2: Yesterday and Today

Part 3: Nope, It's Not 'Faith Healing'!

Part 4: At the Heart of Healing Prayer

Part 5: Modern Medicine, Healing Prayer Can Work Together

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

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