Reading St. John—Part Three: Signs
We understand what is meant by a “sign”: that which, when known, makes known something other than itself. So, when we come to see “red,” we may think, according to the context, “stop,” or of a particular political party or a sports club, or quite a number of other things. In a religious context, the same may signify martyrdom, the Holy Ghost, or the cardinalate. God Himself has instituted signs we all know well in the New Testament: the seven sacraments are signs which convey a divine grace which they precisely signify. In the Old Testament, God also gave signs. These could be of a general nature as when He decreed: “Let there be lights made in the firmament of heaven, to divide the day and the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years” (Gen. 1:14). In this case, “signs” is generally understood “to be for navigational purposes.” These signs could also be of a particular nature: evidence of divine intervention.
The Example of Moses
Here is an instance of this latter. When Moses was hesitating about accepting his mission and going to the children of Israel as God’s spokesman, whether he would be believed to be such or not, God allowed him to produce two “signs” of his mission: he would be able to cast his rod to the ground and turn it into a serpent, and to put his hand to his bosom once and again, making it leprous and curing it. “If they will not believe thee, saith he, nor hear the voice of the former sign, they will believe the word of the latter sign” (Ex. 4:8). A miracle is obviously a sign of divine intervention. But God has a special purpose in working miracles. Before promising Moses the power to work miracles, God had already promised him a “sign”: “Moses said to God: Who am I that I should go to Pharao, and should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? And he said to him: I will be with thee: and this thou shalt have for a sign that I have sent thee: When thou shalt have brought my people out of Egypt, thou shalt offer sacrifice to God upon this mountain” (Ex. 3:11 ff). This means that all the miracles and plagues I will do on your behalf to have you set free will be a sign that I am your God and you are my people, whose sacrifice is pleasing to Me.
St. John, as we know, understood well the scriptures (Lk. 24 :45). From them he took his use of the word “sign.” This was his favorite word rather than “miracle” which has another connotation. What we call a “miracle” comes from the Latin “miraculum” and signifies something that causes wonder, admiration. Miraculum is not found at all in our Vulgate version of the Gospels. What the Rheims translation gives us as “miracle” is given us, in the synoptic Gospels of the Vulgate, mostly as “virtutes” and exclusively as ‘‘signa”—signs, in the fourth Gospel. The first three Gospels cover very much the same subject matter in a similar way: they may be written in parallel columns, giving a comprehensive view, a “synopsis,” of the whole. The fourth Gospel, having much that is unique to it, does not lend itself to being a part of the same overview. Virtutes—works of power—are surely miracles. But St. John sees more to miracles. They are signs not only confirming divine teaching but also illustrating it; and so he will call them “signs,” and so shall we too here, the more closely to follow his thought.
“This beginning of signs—hoc initium signorum—did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him” (Jn. 2:11). St. John puts this turning of water into wine into relation with another miracle, that of healing a ruler’s son: “This again is the second sign that Jesus did, when he was come out of Judea into Galilee” (Jn. 4:54). Between these two there had been many other “signs”: “When he was at Jerusalem, at the Pasch, upon the festival day, many believed in his name, seeing his signs which he did” (Jn. 2:23). “Rabbi,” Nicodemus would say to him, “we know that thou art come a teacher from God; for no man can do these signs which thou dost, unless God be with him” (Jn. 3:2). Therefore, the miracle at Cana is an appeal to our faith. “Jesus manifested His glory.” In other words, He has power over nature, and thus this power comes from God. Likewise, He is empowered to preach in God’s name. What is demanded from us is faith as Christ requested from the ruler whose son was sick (Jn. 4:48-50), and this faith that can ever increase (Jn. 4:47, 50, 53).
But what is especially notable in the fourth Gospel is its interest in Our Lord’s discourses: long passages of His teachings which are among the most sublime. From the miracles of Our Lord that he could relate, St. John chooses those which he sees Christ having performed in conjunction with this teaching, the better to found and explain those which are truly “signs.” So, for example, chapter five contains much of what Our Lord says about giving life, but this is preceded by Him restoring fullness of life to a man who had been infirm for 38 years (Jn. 5:5). “Firstly,” comments St. Thomas Aquinas, “He puts forth a visible sign in which Christ’s power to give and restore life is manifested, according to the manner of this Gospel, in which to the teaching of Christ is always joined some visible doing, accommodated to the subject of the teaching, so that things invisible may be known from things visible.”
The Miracle of the Loaves
This method of presenting Our Lord’s teaching of our evangelist becomes only more evident in the following chapters. Chapter six begins with the miracle of the multiplication of loaves, although we should call it more properly a sign, as does St. John, “These men, when they had seen what a sign—quod Jesus fecerat signum—Jesus had done, said…” (Jn. 6:14). Apart from His own resurrection, this is the only miracle narrated by all four evangelists. Why does St. John repeat this one after his three predecessors?
It is because Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself used this miracle as the occasion for His long discourse on the “Bread of Life’’ that He would give the following day in the synagogue at Capharnaum. The divine multiplication of loaves, as the manna to which Christ referred in His discourse, illustrates, and in some way helps understand this mystery of the Eucharist.
Then, after having said: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth Me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12), Our Lord, in chapter nine, goes on to heal one born blind, and continues with a discussion of spiritual blindness. This healing is a sign: “How can a man that is a sinner do such signs?” (Jn. 9:16). In chapter ten, there is a question of giving life (Jn. 10:9; 10:28). This is followed by chapter eleven and the raising back to life of Lazarus, a “sign” of this doctrine (Jn. 11:47; 12:18). St. John, the eagle amongst the four living creatures, is inviting us to look higher, to the divine purpose behind such marvels.
It is not unknown, of course, to the synoptic Gospels that miracles could be signs of things more transcendent. There is notably the instance of what Our Lords calls “the sign of Jonas.” This is very interesting. St. Paul tells us: “He rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (I Cor. 15:14).
Where in the scriptures is it prophesied that He would rise on the third day? It is written in the book of Jonas, and it is what Jonas’ three days in the belly of the whale really mean (though I dare say he would never have guessed it!). Thus Jesus Christ: “As Jonas was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights, so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” (Mt. 12:40). If Our Lord called this “the sign of Jonas,” it was to emphasize that what happened to the prophet foremostly prefigured something quite other and quite divine. This, we remember, is the allegorical sense, and a prophecy by deed moreover.
Another mention of “the third day” is given us by St. Thomas Aquinas and our Good Friday liturgy, when they evoke the prophet Osee (6:3): “(the Lord) will strike, and he will cure us. He will revive us after two days: on the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.” The literal sense here is the national and religious revival of Israel after the exile, with the three days signifying three moments (Lk. 13:31ff), but the sense would still be “prophecy by deed” and “allegorical.”
Back to St. John. “A great sign appeared in the heaven: a woman clothed with the sun…” (Apoc. 12:1). Did St. John see the Mother of God? And if he did, did she herself signify Holy Mother Church? Yet, it cannot be said of the Blessed Mother that “she cried travailing in birth and was in pain to be delivered” (Apoc. 12:2), whereas that is very much the case with the members of the Mystical Body. On the other hand, other details are proper to Our Lady: Her Son a ruler, on the throne of God (Apoc. 12:5).
All in all, St. John’s writings invite us to scrutinize humbly what Jesus Christ “signified, sending by his angel to his servant John” (Apoc. 1:1).